Flu Prevention: Hand Washing or Hand Sanitizer?

In the battle against the flu, an annual vaccine is important, and so is keeping your hands clean. But before you give that hand sanitizer a pump, listen up. Consumer Reports reveals a surprising new study about germs and explains the right way to wash your hands, which can mean the difference between a week of misery and staying healthy all winter long.

The health team at Consumer Reports says a key to staying on your feet is to pay attention to your hands. It's so important to keep them clean. Washing your hands with soap and water is ideal, but using hand sanitizer is the next best option.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an alcohol-based sanitizer can kill some germs, such as cold and flu viruses, when used correctly. But sanitizer isn't reliable protection against several other germs, including norovirus, the common and highly contagious stomach bug.

And it may not be as effective if your hands are visibly dirty with grime. A recent study even found that washing your hands with water alone -- without soap -- might do a better job of removing flu virus than hand sanitizer.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't use soap. The best way to clean your hands is to wash them with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Handwashing removes germs. Hand sanitizer can kill germs, but it doesn't always get all of them. That makes handwashing a better bet.

If you can't get to a sink, use hand sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol. Be sure to use enough to cover all the surfaces of your hands and fingers, rubbing it in until it's dry.

And remember that the best way to reduce your risk of catching the flu is by getting the flu vaccine. A flu shot and regular handwashing will go a long way toward preventing colds and flu. Consumer Reports reminds us that the flu also spreads through the air. So try to avoid close contact with people you know are sick. And if you do get sick, stay home to avoid infecting others.

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