Hand Washing, Face Washing, and Disease Prevention

Scouring the Internet for information on how often children wash their hands, the most frequently cited story is a survey conducted by Russell Research for the American Cleaning Institute and published towards the end of 2011. The study found that nearly 90 percent of children do wash their hands after using the toilet at school, but the numbers drop considerably from this healthy high point.

For instance, 74 percent say they wash their hands after touching garbage, 65 percent wash their hands before eating lunch, 60 percent after gym class, and about half after blowing their noses.

When asked why they do not wash their hands more frequently, time seems to be the critical reason. Either the students say they do not have enough time to wash their hands or their teachers do not give them enough time. Whatever the reason, the goal is to ensure children wash their hands whenever they are exposed to germs and bacteria however that might happen.

But, there is something else we must consider. Children touch their faces a lot. The average person touches his or her face about 18 times per hour. Children touch their faces even more. The big problem is germs, viruses, and bacteria passed on to a child’s face from their hands are a leading cause of disease and illness.

An abstract regarding a study undertaken by Dr. Mark Nicas with the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, published in 2007 in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, reported: “a substantial portion of human respiratory tract infection(s) is thought to be transmitted via contaminated hand contact with the mouth, eyes, and/or nostrils. Thus, a key risk factor for infection transmission should be the rate of hand contact with these areas termed ‘target facial membranes.’”

In other words, the combination of not washing hands often enough along with children frequently touching their faces soon becomes a health risk waiting to happen. And we should add, it's not just one child not washing his or her hands and then touching his or her face. If contagions are on the hands of a child and that child then touches the top of a chair, a railing, a light switch, etc., the chances of those surfaces being touched by another child or teacher are considerable. This is what cross contamination is all about. While it can be a challenge to change this behavior and help protect our children’s health, there are steps parents and teachers can take to improve the odds resulting in less disease and the spread of illness.

What Kids Touch

We are born touching. It’s probably the first way babies start learning about the new world they have been born into. And it soon becomes “natural” for children to touch something, pick it up, and put it in their mouths. So in a sense, we are born touching and born taking our hands and then touching our faces.

But today, touching is a way of life like never before. Just about every child in the U.S. carries either a cellphone or smartphone. They are always touching the screen and often sharing phones and smartphones with others. How often are those phones cleaned and cleaned effectively to remove contagions? Likely very rarely.

They are also touching computer keyboards in schools (and likely monitors as well) that may have been touched by several other students during the day before — if ever — they are cleaned. Kids also touch books, notebooks, pens and pencils, desks, tables, doorknobs, counters, flush handles on restroom fixtures, chairs, and ledges on school buses that are then touched by others, and the cross contamination we mentioned earlier takes on a life of its own.

Adults are catching on to the many health problems that all this touching can cause. At a recent gathering of the World Congress of Dermatology, dermatologists say something called “touch avoidance” is becoming much more common. Adults are trying to protect their health by not touching things or others much more today, concerned about the spread of disease and the many ways disease can be spread. However children, especially young children, have not learned this or if taught, practice it haphazardly.

Teaching with a Tune

To learn Italian, a parent sent her 4-year-old child to a particular language school. Instead of the way many of us were taught a foreign language – by repeating words and sentences over and over – the teachers in this school took another approach. They taught their young students Italian by putting the phrases into rhymes.

This is not an uncommon approach, and what many schools and teachers have found is that it works. The reason for this, according to the U.K.’s British Council, which works with U.K. children and adults to help them learn English, “babies and young children are geniuses at acquiring a second language.” The Council adds that children are “drawn to the magic of rhymes and songs. They hear and experiment with the beat of a song; they enjoy mimicking the pronunciation of new and strange words; and they play with rhyming words through repetition, even inventing their own examples. By doing these things, your child is listening to the sounds of the language,” which helps them learn the language more effectively and much faster.

So if children can learn a foreign language by singing rhymes, how about teaching kids – especially when they are very young – to wash their hands more frequently and to avoid touching their faces with a song or rhyme? It seems it would follow the same learning process.

An example of a rhyme that might just do the trick is the following:

Wash your hands today,

Wash your hands today,

Wash your hands, dear Bobby,

Wash your hands today.

Wash your face today,

Wash your face today,

Wash your face, dear Bobby,

Wash your face today.

Or how about this:

Mary had to wash her face, wash her face, wash her face,

Mary had to wash her face, wash it twice a day.

And every time Mary washed her face, washed her face,

Every time that Mary washed her face, she washed the germs away.

Mary had to wash her hands, wash her hands, wash her hands,

Mary had to wash her hands, before and after meals.

And every time that Mary washed her hands, washed her hands, washed her hands,

Every time that Mary washed her hands, the better she felt that day.

The bottom line is this. Our children are at risk because they do not wash their hands as often as they should, and these unwashed hands spread contaminants on faces and surfaces. Telling children to wash their hands more frequently has helped, but it has not gone far enough. This means another approach is needed and needed when children are young.

How effective teaching young children songs and rhymes to increase hand washing and avoid face touching is or will be is unknown as we have no studies. However, if they are teaching 4-year-old children Italian with a song, it seems logical that children can be taught proper hygiene with a song as well.