Hand washing 101

We’ve heard on the news and read in the newspaper the reports that cases of influenza have been on the rise through the state. Hopefully, you’ve had your flu shot, are getting plenty of rest and drinking plenty of fluids. But are you doing your best when it comes to the most important means of preventing the spread of infection? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hand-washing is the single most important thing you can do to prevent the spread of infection.

Think about everything you’ve touched today — door handles, your keyboard on your computer, your phone, your face, your hair. The list goes on and on. Our hands touch many different things all through the day. Many of the things we touch are pretty harmless, but there are things out there that can make us ill. Hand-washing is the first line of defense against the common cold, the flu, other infectious diseases and foodborne illness.

I remember the days when my kids were still living at home and when one of them caught a cold or brought home a virus, it seemed that we went into hyper-drive to try and keep from touching and cross-contaminating different surfaces and each other. It’s at times like that when you really realize how easy it is to spread germs.

Washing your hands is important. Doing a good job with the washing is also important. A good hand washing should take at least 20 seconds and include the backs of your hands, between the fingers and under the fingernails. Finally, we should wash our hands often. We should always wash our hands before and after handling food, after you take out the garbage, after you’ve used the bathroom, after you’ve touched your face, nose or hair, before you eat, after you’ve pet an animal, etc.

When you eat out you expect that cooks and servers have paid attention to hand hygiene. We need to practice that at home too, in order to prevent the spread of foodborne illness. It seems pretty basic, but actually is a very common food safety mistake. There are several other common food safety mistakes that can result in major consequences. Forty-eight million Americans are sickened by food poisoning each year. Don’t let yourself be included in this statistic. There are some very basic and easy practices to adopt to keep you safe from foodborne illness. For example, have you ever done this:

1. Tasted food to see if it’s still good- Do you ever find a leftover that got to the back of the refrigerator that might have been there too long? Don’t taste it to find out if it has spoiled. You can’t taste or smell the bacteria that causes food poisoning. If in doubt, throw it out.

2. Thawing food on the counter — Have you ever forgotten to take the meat out of the freezer for supper and had it thaw on the counter? Not a good idea. Bacteria multiplies rapidly when foods are at room temperature. Always thaw in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave.

3. Letting food cool before putting it in the refrigerator — This is the same problem as #2. Bacteria multiplies quickly in the danger zone of 40 degrees to 140 degrees. Always refrigerate food in a timely manner.

4. Undercooking meat, poultry, seafood and eggs — Cooked food is safe only after it’s been heated to a high enough internal temperature to kill the harmful bacteria.

5. Putting cooked or ready-to-eat foods back on the plate that held raw meat — It’s one less step and one less platter to wash, but this practice can easily spread pathogens from the raw meat to the cooked meat by cross contamination. Cooked food needs to be put onto a clean plate.

Food safety is important and not that hard to do. In the long run an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure in the case of food poisoning and the spread of infection.

Cheryl Rude is a registered dietitian at Avera Marshall Regional Medical Center.