Clean Hands Help Combat Measles Outbreak, Columbia Nursing Infection Expert Says

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With measles cases in the U.S. at a 20-year high, it’s more important than ever to keep your hands clean. Measles, caused by an airborne virus that’s spread by breathing, coughing, and sneezing, can linger for up to two hours in the air or on surfaces. While vaccination should be the first line of defense, soap and water, or hand sanitizer, are also powerful weapons against the current measles outbreak, says Elaine Larson, PhD, RN, FAAN, associate dean for research at Columbia University School of Nursing.

As added protection against measles, Larson recommends:

Carry hand sanitizer: “The best, fastest and most effective way to clean hands when you’re on the go is to carry a small container of alcohol-based hand sanitizer,” Larson said. “A 15 second application of alcohol-based sanitizer can kill germs. With a highly contagious virus like measles, it’s best to re-apply every hour.”

Look for sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol, and be sure to use enough to keep your hands moist for at least 10 seconds – the minimum time needed to kill bacteria. “Alcohol sanitizers work only when they’re wet,” Larson said.

Wash every surface on the hands: “The number one mistake people make is just rubbing their palms together, and missing the dirtiest part of their hands,” Larson said. “You can’t stop viruses from spreading unless you cover every single surface on the hands – including between the fingers and under and around the finger nails. Soap is also crucial because it acts as an emulsifier to slip the germs off the hands.”

Keep your hands to yourself: “It’s not enough to keep your hands clean, you also need to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth to prevent spreading the virus,” Larson says. “Constantly touching your face gives the virus more ways to invade.”

At the same time, it’s also important to avoid close contact with people who may be sick or spend time in environments where disease spreads easily, such as nursing homes or daycare centers. “Kissing and hugging are best avoided if there’s a possibility that your close friend or loved one has come in contact with measles.”

Larson is a fellow in the Institute of Medicine and has advised the World Health Organization on best practices for hand washing. She has been editor of the American Journal of Infection Control since 1995 and has published more than 250 journal articles, four books and a number of book chapters in the areas of infection prevention, epidemiology and clinical research.