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A Dirty History

According to the Center of Disease Control, washing one’s hands on a regular basis is the most effective and overlooked way to prevent infection. It was not until 1847, when the observations which lead to the practice of hand washing in medical clinics were made by Dr. Semmelweis. While working at an obstetrics clinic, Dr. Semmelweis was alarmed by the amount of mothers suffering from fatal childbed fever following delivery. The incidence was significantly higher in births assisted by medical students than by midwives. Dr. Semmelweis discovered that medical students helping with childbirth did so after performing autopsies on patients who died from sepsis. Armed with this knowledge, mortality rates dropped by 20-fold in 3 months, after a strict hand-washing policy with a chlorinated antiseptic solution was instituted. We have, of course, come a long way since 1847 and yet improper hand washing continues to significantly contribute to disease transmission.

The mouth is a major gateway for microorganisms to enter the bloodstream. Routine practices of washing hands with soap for at least 15 seconds, prior to consuming or preparing food can decrease the entrance of disease causing bacteria and germs into the body. Cleaning your hands after you use the bathroom or changing a diaper are all part of preventative methods. Covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough can help stop the spread of germ-filled droplets into the air. Avoid touching your eyes and nose as microorganisms can enter the body through these sites. Colds and flu are often transmitted this way. The Hand, Foot and Mouth disease virus is spread when infected persons touch objects and surfaces that are then touched by others. Taking hygienic precautions is important not only to protect yourself but also to prevent infection of those around you. Mary Mallon was responsible for several outbreaks of typhoid fever in the United States in the early 1900s. She was identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen and presumed to have infected over 53 people during her career as a cook. Infamous Typhoid Mary’s personal contact with food and those around her is a prime example of the necessity to practice preventative methods.

Hand washing is only the first step in proper personal hygiene. Bathing regularly and wearing clean clothes keeps your body free of dirt, germs and lice. Wearing shower shoes in public facilities can decrease the spread of fungal infections. Properly airing out your shower shoes and allowing them to dry ensures that mold and fungus do not grow in your protective gear. Parasitic and fungal infections can also be found on clothes. Washing clothes regularly is important to keep the skin clean and prevent microbial accumulation on the material. Washing machines are great for cleaning clothing but they can also be a source of germs. Keeping the lid open after a wash allows for proper drying of the machine and restricts any growth of mold and fungi from standing water in the machine. Running an empty wash cycle with soap and hot water once a month, helps keep the machine free of bacteria and spores. (Please note: continuous washing of undergarments in only cold water can contribute to chronic yeast infections and urinary tract infections. Do not be afraid to add some hot water on a routine basis). Hockey and football equipment, shower shoes and washing machines, create the perfect wet environment to harbor growth. Do you ever wonder where that smell is from? Airing out the equipment and spraying it with white vinegar should be practiced after each use!

Regular grooming methods of hair and nails can help prevent dirt accumulation and infestation of infectious agents. The buildup of oils on the face from the skin and hair can lead to acne break-outs especially around the hairline. Cleaning and brushing teeth daily is an excellent habit to prevent bad breath and keep gums healthy. Food particles that remain in the mouth form a medium for germs to grow and cause gingivitis, dental caries and periodontal disease. Proper oral hygiene can often be overlooked. One of the problems associated with gum disease is an increased risk for heart complications. Dental procedures with increased bleeding from gum disease can allow bacteria to enter the bloodstream and cause infection in other parts of the body, specifically to heart valves. This outcome can be avoided, by proper teeth care.

Domestic hygiene is paramount to avoiding disease. Keep living areas clean and free from dirt, flies and germs help prevent the spread of illness. Cooking utensils, pots, plates and cups should be kept clean as mold can grow on leftover food. Food and water can be a major source of contamination leading to illness. Use clean water sources for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing (preferably filtered). Wash fruits and vegetables before consumption with a light soap to remove pesticides and microorganisms. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be contaminated if they are washed or irrigated with dirty water. During food processing microbes can be introduced by a person with an infection, like Typhoid Mary, or by cross contamination from raw products. Shigella bacteria, hepatitis A virus and norovirus can be caused by the unwashed hands of food handlers who are themselves infected. Using the same knife, cutting board or utensils without washing, can transfer microorganisms from one food to another. Cooked food can be re-contaminated if it comes in contact with raw food or raw food drippings. Food left out overnight can be highly infectious the next day; refrigeration or freezing prevents bacteria growth. Properly heating food to 160°F or 78°C can kill parasites, viruses and bacteria (Please note: in pregnancy food must always be cooked well-done prior to consumption). Safe and proper methods are important when handling and preparing food.

Many diseases and conditions can be prevented or controlled through appropriate practice of high standards of personal and domestic hygiene.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: