Handwashing: A top defence against illness and drug resistance

15 Oct 2015
Written by
Joanne Bosanquet

Joanne Bosanquet is Deputy Chief Nurse for Public Health England.

Today marks Global Handwashing Day, a day to raise awareness of the importance of hand hygiene and handwashing - probably the most effective way we can prevent disease, illness and save lives.

For many people, handwashing is a simple task, part of everyday routine, but we must remember it is one of our best defences against illness, and, importantly, in helping to prevent the spread of infection and antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

AMR is a worldwide public health problem that requires global action. At Public Health England, AMR is a national priority and there are many areas of work we’re involved in as part of the UK response to tackling resistance. If we don’t take action now, we will once again return to an era where simple infections and illnesses cannot be treated and vital surgeries can no longer be carried out because our antibiotics cannot protect us against infection.

By ensuring we are not complacent about the simple steps everyone can take to prevent illness, like washing our hands, we can each play our part in protecting our health and the health of others.

The purpose of handwashing is to remove dirt, viruses and bacteria from hands to stop these being spread to the environment and from person to person, which can lead to illness. Everyone should wash their hands after using the toilet, after handling raw foods like chicken, meat and vegetables, before eating or handling ready-to-eat food, and after handling animals, including pets.

Some people might be surprised about just how much bacteria can be found on our hands. E. coli bacteria are frequently found in the intestines of humans and animals. There are many different types (strains) of E. coli, and while some live in the intestine quite harmlessly, others may cause a variety of diseases. For example, Vero cytotoxin-producing Escherichia coli (VTEC) can cause gastroenteritis, whilst other types of E.coli cause  urinary tract infections, cystitis (infection of the bladder), bloodstream infections and other complications.  The bacterium is commonly found in faeces and can survive in the environment and on our hands, which is why it is important that you wash your hands after using the toilet. 

Because unwashed hands carrying dirt and such bacteria can lead to many illnesses, people affected might need to see a doctor and be prescribed antibiotics as treatment. One of the key areas we need to address to tackle AMR is to reduce the amount of antibiotics we take. By taking steps to ensure we’re protecting our health as much as we can, like washing our hands, we are utilising our best defence against illnesses and disease.

As part of our work to slow resistance, we invite everyone in the UK to join the Antibiotic Guardian campaign. Antibiotic Guardian is an important campaign aimed at healthcare and veterinary professionals and the public, including pet owners, and encourages them to register and make one pledge about how they can personally help to conserve our vital antibiotics. I encourage everyone to sign up and become an Antibiotic Guardian to join us in our efforts to stop resistance in its tracks.

Learn more about the importance of handwashing