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posted: 10/15/2012 6:00 AM

Washing hands is simple task, but you've got to do it right

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Q. Is there a "right" way to wash your hands? I wash my hands regularly but still get sick.

A. I answer a lot of questions about complicated, serious diseases. Yet your question, about something all of us do every day, is at least as important because we don't always do it well -- and we pay a price for that.

Washing your hands is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria that cause colds, the flu and other infectious illnesses. There is no doubt that it reduces your risk of catching many infectious diseases. It doesn't eliminate the risk, usually because the germs can get into your body in other ways besides on your hands. But hand-washing definitely protects you.

However, to be protected, you've got to wash your hands thoroughly and regularly. There's no rule for how often you should wash your hands, but there are certain occasions when you must wash your hands: after using the bathroom, before eating or preparing food, and after being with someone who is ill. I also wash my hands as soon as I get home.

Remember that soap and water don't "kill" germs; they mechanically remove germs from your hands. That's why it's important to wash your hands thoroughly. Follow these steps:

• Spread cleanser over your hands.

• Clean backs of hands and fingers.

• Clean fingertips.

• Clean fingernails.

• Clean thumbs.

• Clean between fingers.

It takes about one minute to properly wash and dry your hands. Wash your hands for as long as it takes you to sing one chorus of the alphabet song.

Water alone does a fairly good job of germ removal, but soap increases the overall effectiveness by pulling unwanted material off your skin and into the water. Drying your hands is also important: Wet hands are more likely to spread germs than dry hands.

What about hand sanitizers? The main advantage of these alcohol-based cleaners, which you just rub on your hands, is that you don't need water or a towel, so you can use them anywhere.

Alcohol kills bacteria and even some viruses. To be effective, alcohol-based rubs need to come into contact with all surfaces of your hands -- back, front, in between the fingers and so forth. Be sure to use enough -- several squirts -- of alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

• Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. Submit questions or get additional information at