By Drs. Sally Robinson and Keith Bly

If someone asked you about your first defense against getting sick and spreading illness, what would you say? A survey showed that most parents feel that diet and exercise, regular check-ups and immunizations are the best way. But the fact is that hand washing is the most effective way to keep germs from spreading.

Bacteria and viruses can be transmitted through contaminated water and food, droplets released through a cough or a sneeze, dirty hands, contaminated surfaces and a sick person's body fluids. Germs can also lurk in many places that you wouldn't suspect, such as on toys, pens, pencils and crayons, cafeteria plates and trays, playground equipment, pet cages and food dishes, board games, spoons, knives and forks, remote controls, computer keyboards, phones, escalator/stair railings, cloth towels, toothbrushes, bathroom cups, doorknobs, sink handles and light switches.

If you touch one of these sources, you can pick up germs and become infected by touching your eyes, nose or mouth. And once one family member is infected, the whole family may come down with the same illness.

Good hand washing is vital to staying healthy, yet only about one in three people wash their hands after using the restroom. You can prevent catching and spreading many diseases, including the common cold and more serious illnesses such as meningitis, bronchiolitis, influenza, hepatitis A and most types of infectious diarrhea, by simply washing your hands.

It is important to teach your children to wash their hands by keeping your hands clean, as well. Wash your hands together with your children several times a day so they learn the importance of this good habit. Here are some simple steps for scrubbing germs away:

· Wash hands with warm water because it kills germs better than cold water. Make sure the water isn't too hot for little hands.

· Use soap and rub hands together for about 20 seconds (enough time to sing the "Happy Birthday" song) to create lots of bubbles. Antibacterial soap isn't necessary - any soap will do. Make sure to wash between the fingers and under the nails, where germs hide. And don't forget to wash wrists.

· Rinse all of the soap off of your hands with warm, running water.

· Dry hands with a paper towel or a clean towel.


Teach your children to wash BEFORE they:

· Set the table.
· Empty the dishwasher.

Teach your children to wash AFTER they:

· Use the restroom.
· Change a baby's diaper.
· Sneeze, cough or blow their nose.
· Touch garbage.
· Clean the house.
· Touch a pet or other animal.
· Touch blood.
· Play outdoors.
· Shake someone's hand.
· Visit someone who is sick.
· Ride on the school bus.
· Get a scraped knee or a cut on your hands.
· Clean up spills.

Teach your children to wash BEFORE and AFTER they:

· Change the litter box.
· Eat or cook.
· Play with younger brothers or sisters.

Don't underestimate the power of hand washing. A few seconds spent at the sink with your children could very well save you trips to the doctor.
Dr. Sally Robinson is a pediatrician in the division of children's special services at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She teaches medical students about caring for children with chronic medical conditions. Dr. Keith Bly is a hospitalist and assistant professor of pediatrics at UTMB. This column is not intended to replace the advice of a physician.

The Your Health column is written by health and medical experts at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The column focuses on topical health issues that we believe are of interest to your readers. It is e-mailed every Tuesday. If you have any questions about the column, or would like to suggest topics, please contact John Koloen, media relations specialist, at (409) 772-8790 or email