Here’s why handwashing is so important

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.– Even though spring is here, flu season isn’t over yet, which means anything you touch could potentially get you sick.

So far this season, 278 people have died from the flu in Indiana, according to the Indiana State Department of Health. Officials with IU Health say flu season can last until mid-April.

Many infectious diseases, including the common cold, influenza, and a variety of gastrointestinal illnesses, are all transmissible through contact.

“The respiratory pathogens, like the flu virus, can live on surfaces for maybe a whole day or so,” said Karen Irven, the supervisor of microbiology at IU Health. “So, anytime that you would touch a surface that is contaminated and then touch your face, you’re basically inoculating yourself with that flu virus. In turn, you get sick, your family gets sick and it’s just a big chain of events.”

Dr. Ryan Relich with IU Health said pathogens like norovirus, one of the most common causes of infectious diarrhea, is viable several days or even weeks on surfaces such as door knobs, faucet handles and toilets. Dr. Relich said contact with a surface even days after someone contaminated it with norovirus can put you at risk for infection.

FOX59’s Olivia McClellan participated in a handwashing experiment at the IU Health Pathology Lab to see the importance of handwashing, firsthand. Microbiologists at the lab tested Olivia’s hands both before and after handwashing, using a blood agar plate that was then incubated for a couple days.

Here’s what they found- 15 different types of bacteria including:

-Staphylococcus epidermidis

-Bacillus species


Dr. Relich said the bacteria found are those that normally inhabit human skin. However, he said there was no large difference shown before and after handwashing. He said the lack of difference means Olivia should have washed and scrubbed harder and for longer.

Hand before washing
Hand after washing

Dr. Relich said always wash hands after using the bathroom, before and after changing diapers, caring for sick individuals, and before eating.

Handwashing tips from IU Health:

Use a good amount of soap. (Irven said any type of regular soap will do the trick and does not need to be labeled “antibacterial.”)

Wash for 20-30 seconds. (Sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice.)

Scrub both the front and back of your hands.

Wash up towards the wrist and underneath fingernails.

Rinse thoroughly.

Microbiologists at the IU Health Path Lab also tested Olivia’s cell phone using a swab test. Here’s what they found:

-10 different types of bacteria

-All of the bacteria found were consistent with normal mouth, throat and skin flora, no ‘bad bacteria.’

Phone before cleansing.
Phone after cleansing.

“The big problem with cell phones is you’re always bringing them up to your face,” said Irven.  “Anything that would be on the counter where you laid your cellphone, on your fingers because you’re touching the cell phone, all of that is then up near your face. You can definitely get any type of pathogen from just touching your cell phone to your face.”

Irven says proper handwashing is the easiest thing you can do to prevent the spread of diseases.

“Without handwashing, you could touch surface and then touch your face, your eyes, your nose, your mouth and basically inoculate yourself with viruses or other pathogens and cause yourself to be sick, so it is very important,” said Irven. “You not only want to prevent yourself from getting sick but you don’t want to spread that flu virus or that norovirus around to other people.”

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