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Hygiene Practices to Protect Your Family from Common Illnesses

Schools, daycares, dorms, and medical facilities are known as hotbeds for infection. Close quarters, limited bathroom facilities, and poor ventilation can increase your risk of acquiring an infection. While most people can fight off common respiratory viruses, older adults and people with health conditions that affect how well their immune system functions may experience more serious, or even fatal, outcomes.

The average child experiences 4 to 8 respiratory infections each year, with younger children in daycare having even higher numbers. Viral respiratory infections account for 30% to 50% of all doctor’s visits and 20% to 40% of all hospital admissions in childhood. About one-third of children hospitalized for a viral illness have multiple ongoing infections.1 Adults average between 2 to 4 viral infections each year.

Telehealth and online medical care can reduce the cost of a doctor’s visit, but good hygiene practices can decrease your family’s risk of acquiring an infection in the first place.

Understanding Common Illnesses

Germs are everywhere, in the air, on you, and on every surface you touch. These microorganisms can be classified as viral, bacterial, protozoan, helminth, or fungal based on their characteristics and response to pharmaceutical products. They can also be classified by whether they cause disease. While we generally think of bacteria, viruses, and fungi as harmful, we could not survive without many of them.  

Microorganisms that cause infectious diseases can be spread in many ways, including:2

  • Direct contact with bodily fluids, such as saliva, mucus, respiratory droplets, blood, or skin.
  • Indirect contact by touching surfaces, utensils, and personal items that have been contaminated with infectious microbes.
  • Airborne transmission is by breathing in viral particles or droplets that have been expelled when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. Infectious agents can also spread when droplets or particles land on your eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Fecal-oral transmission occurs when you come into contact with an infected person’s feces and then touch your face or mouth or when infectious agents are transferred through contaminated water or food.
  • Sexual transmission occurs when sexual contact with an infected person allows for the transmission of sexually transmitted infections like HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis from one person to another.
  • Vector-Borne transmission occurs when mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, or other arthropods carry and transmit the infectious agent from one host to another.
  • Vertical transmission occurs when infectious microbes are passed from mother to offspring during childbirth or breastfeeding.
  • Zoonotic transmission is when infectious diseases are transmitted from animals to humans.

No matter how they are transmitted, viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms can cause diseases such as influenza, the common cold, gastrointestinal infections, and respiratory infections. Your body has a multi-layered defense against the millions of suspended particles in the air we breathe. Luckily, most of these particles are harmless.2

washing hands

The Role of Hygiene in Preventing Illness

Help your immune system fight infection by practicing good hygiene. Good hygiene practices can reduce your risk of illness, but not completely. Germs are found everywhere, even in the cleanest homes.

Some common germy areas in the home include:

  • Bathroom surfaces: when your toilet is flushed, infectious agents are aerosolized and are carried in the air for up to 90 minutes. Ultimately, they settle on surfaces throughout your bathroom.3
  • Kitchen surfaces: bacteria from food and contaminated eating utensils sit in the sink contributing to a slimy biofilm. In one study, 34 different types of bacteria were found in the kitchens of four households. Fans above stoves, refrigerator/freezer door seals, and floors contained the most diverse species. The sinks were contaminated with biofilm-forming gram-negative bacteria. Researchers found that human skin was the primary source of bacteria found in kitchens.4
  • Kitchen sponges: sponges and damp towels harbor bacteria, fungi, and yeasts. A kitchen sponge is a clear winner for harboring the greatest diversity of microorganisms in your household.

According to a study conducted by NSF International, in collaboration with the Charles River Accugenix group, in addition to kitchen sponges and toothbrush holders, coffee makers, personal items, electronics, and cutting boards need frequent cleaning.

Pet items had the highest distribution of microbes, followed by kitchens, bathrooms, and personal items. The surface type, lifestyle practices, and whether you regularly clean surfaces with highly effective agents such as bleach and alcohol make a difference.

cleaning products

Essential Home Hygiene Practices

Cleaning household surfaces frequently, vacuuming, using air purifiers, and removing your shoes before entering the home are healthy habits that can reduce your family’s risk of infections.

Regular Cleaning and Disinfection

Regular cleaning and disinfection are essential, especially in the kitchen, bathroom, and other high-touch areas. Cleaning and disinfecting are slightly different.

  • Cleaning is using soap or detergent with water to remove dirt, dust, food particles, and germs from surfaces by scrubbing. Germs are manually removed but not necessarily killed.
  • Disinfecting is to use chemicals to kill germs. A disinfectant is applied to a surface and left there until the germs are killed.

A surface may be cleaned but not disinfected. Likewise, it is possible to disinfect the surface and leave it appearing dirty. When the number of germs on a surface is lowered to a safe level, this is called sanitizing.

To reduce your infectious disease risk in the bathroom, close the toilet lid before flushing, keep your toothbrush covered or at least away from the toilet, and regularly wipe the counter, toilet, and other surfaces with disinfecting wipes or sprays.

Clean high-touch surfaces throughout your home, especially after having visitors or when someone is ill. Clean each surface with a product labeled as safe for that surface. Check the instructions to learn how much product to apply and how long to leave it on the surface before wiping.

In your kitchen, clean counters, refrigerators, microwaves, and furniture regularly. Fill your sink with detergent and water and drain. After cleaning the sink surfaces, use disinfectants to kill the remaining bacteria, especially around the drain. Run your disposal to remove any food particles left in the drain. Clean a wet sponge in the microwave or dishwasher. Never microwave a dry sponge, as it can catch fire.5

When disinfecting, use bleach or EPA-certified disinfectants. Verify they are safe for the surface. If you have young children in your home, verify whether the disinfectants you use are safe for them. Disinfecting wipes can make disinfecting surfaces, electronics, and cell phones easy.

Food Safety

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the U.S. Symptoms of foodborne illness include upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, and fever. Young children, older adults, and people with chronic diseases are at the highest risk.6

Safely store, handle, and cook foods by:

  • Wash your hands before and after preparing food.
  • Check your refrigerator and freezer temperatures to ensure that food is stored at an optimal temperature.
  • Store raw meat, poultry, and seafood separately from other food items.
  • Cover all cut produce.
  • Check the expiration date on food and throw it away if it is past the date or has an unusual odor, color, or texture.
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked meat and eggs.
  • Prepare raw meat on a separate surface and use clean utensils. Wash cutting boards and utensils with hot, soapy water after use. Use paper towels, not sponges or dish towels, to prevent contamination.
  • After preparing food and eating, wash your kitchen surfaces and utensils with hot, soapy water.
  • Thoroughly wash all produce before consuming it.
  • Scrub potatoes and carrots and other foods in which the skin is consumed before eating them.  
  • Cook poultry, meats, and eggs to the recommended temperatures.
  • Avoid eating unpasteurized dairy products.
leafty greens

Personal Hygiene at Home

To stay healthy, make time for personal hygiene habits as well. Wash your hands frequently, especially if you have been exposed to someone who may be ill. Wash before and after preparing food, when caring for someone who is sick, after caring for animals, taking out the garbage, or toileting. Keep hand sanitizer in handy places.

Regular bathing, teeth brushing, and dental cleanings can also reduce your risk of infection. Talk to your children about good hygiene and teach them how to bathe, wash their hands, toilet, and brush their teeth properly. The time you spend helping children establish healthy habits will pay off in their future!

Hygiene Practices in Public

While it is important to practice good hygiene at home, some would argue that these habits are even more important in public settings where you may come in contact with people at high risk for infectious diseases.

Hand Hygiene in Public

The single most important thing you can do to protect yourself and others from infection when in public is to practice good hand hygiene. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds (long enough to receive the alphabet) with soap and water. Ensure that you scrub all surfaces of your hands and wrists, including between your fingers.

In addition to washing your hands after using the restroom, wash or sanitize them with hand sanitizer after interacting with others or touching surfaces in public places. Washing hands followed by a squirt of hand sanitizer (60% alcohol) can further reduce bacteria and viruses on your hands.

In addition to washing your hands, avoid touching your face to keep any residual bacteria or viruses from being transferred to mucous membranes lining your nose, mouth, or eyes, where they can cause an infection.

While it’s important to wash your hands after returning home from all public settings, it is especially important to do so in healthcare settings, where the infectious agents are in higher concentration, and you are exposed to more vulnerable people who can become ill easily.

Respiratory Etiquette

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us all more aware of the millions of microbes and viral particles we breathe daily. When someone talks, coughs, or sneezes, the air is expelled from their nose and mouth. Suspended viral particles and droplets laden with bacteria are transmitted through the air.

When these particles and droplets land on our faces or on surfaces we touch, we can become infected with the microbial agents carried in them. To protect others from our secretions, covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or an elbow is important. After coughing or sneezing, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer as soon as possible.

Face masks provide a barrier between our coughs and sneezes and other people. Well-fitting face masks that cover your nose and mouth and catch droplets and keep them from landing on the people and surfaces around us.

Hygiene While Eating Out

Dining in at restaurants was largely impossible during the pandemic because it is difficult to protect ourselves and others in a restaurant unless we all practice good hygiene habits such as:

  • Sanitizing surfaces, dishes, and utensils before inviting someone to eat from them.
  • Keeping a well-stocked bathroom with soap, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and paper towels.
  • Covering coughs and sneezes and washing hands frequently.
  • Ensuring good ventilation throughout the dining room.
  • Making hand sanitizer available when people serve themselves from common dishes.
  • Inspecting your kitchen, eating areas, and bathrooms regularly.
  • Wearing gloves when serving food if optimal hand hygiene is not possible.
  • Checking trash bins to ensure they are not overflowing.
  • Keeping bottles of hand sanitizer easily accessible, especially in high-traffic areas.
flossing teeth

Maintaining Hygiene while Sick

While it is important to maintain good hygiene at all times, it is even more important to do so when you are sick. Whenever possible, avoid close contact with people when you are ill.

Isolation and Quarantine

Isolation and quarantine are both public health measures to stop the spread of disease. Isolation is the practice of separating people who are ill from healthy people to prevent disease transmission.

Isolation is typically recommended when someone has disease symptoms or has tested positive for carrying an infection. The duration of isolation depends on the specific microbe and how long it is considered to be contagious.

Quarantine means to separate and restrict the movement of people exposed to an infectious agent but not showing any signs of disease. There is typically a lag between exposure to an infectious agent and developing symptoms during the incubation period.

Quarantining people is intended to prevent people who have been exposed to an infectious agent from spreading it unknowingly during the incubation period. The duration of quarantine depends on the incubation period for the disease.

If you may have been exposed to an infectious agent, such as the virus that causes COVID-19, it is easy to find an online doctor on call on the Telegra MD platform and make an appointment to receive an online diagnosis and have any online prescriptions you need to be transmitted to your local pharmacy.

Hygiene Practices for Caregivers

Whether you are ill or the caregiver for someone who is ill, protecting yourself from infections is essential.

If you are a caregiver:

  • Get plenty of sleep and consume a healthy diet to support your immune function.
  • Wash your hands before and after taking care of the needs of a sick person.
  • Wear gloves, if possible, when handling bodily fluids.
  • Wear a mask around a sick person to reduce the risk of disease spread.
  • Use separate dishes and utensils when serving someone who is ill.
  • Ask for help when needed so you don’t become run down while caring for others.
  • If possible, designate a dedicated bathroom for sick people in the household.
  • Do self-checks to determine whether you are showing any signs of illness.
  • Keep in contact with telehealth providers to answer questions and discuss disease progress. Doctors are on call, 24 hours a day, to provide online diagnosis and treatment.

Disclaimer

While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case.  The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice. 

References

1. Hwang JK, Na JY, Kim J, Oh JW, Kim YJ, Choi YJ. Age-Specific Characteristics of Adult and Pediatric Respiratory Viral Infections: A Retrospective Single-Center Study. J Clin Med. 2022 Jun 3;11 (11):3197. doi: 10.3390/jcm11113197. PMID: 35683584; PMCID: PMC9181129.

2. Goering RV, et al. Mims’ Medical Microbiology and Immunology. 6th ed. Elsevier; 2019. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed July 31, 2023

3. Abney, S.E., Bright, K.R., McKinney, J., Ijaz, M.K. and Gerba, C.P. (2021), Toilet hygiene—review and research needs. J Appl Microbiol, 131: 2705-2714. https://doi.org/10.1111/jam.15121

4. Flores GE, Bates ST, Caporaso JG, Lauber CL, Leff JW, Knight R, Fierer N. Diversity, distribution and sources of bacteria in residential kitchens. Environ Microbiol. 2013 Feb;15(2):588-96. doi: 10.1111/1462-2920.12036. Epub 2012 Nov 22. PMID: 23171378; PMCID: PMC5100818.

5. Sharma M, Eastridge J, Mudd C. Effective household disinfection methods of kitchen sponges. Food Control. 2009;20(3):310-313. doi:10.1016/j.foodcont.2008.05.020

6. Fung F, Wang HS, Menon S. Food safety in the 21st century. Biomed J. 2018 Apr;41(2):88-95. doi: 10.1016/j.bj.2018.03.003. Epub 2018 May 21. PMID: 29866604; PMCID: PMC6138766.

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