Ottawa's Health is in Your Hands

Healthy habits are important to protect yourself and others from potentially harmful germs.  Germs are types of microbes, such as bacteria or viruses, which can cause diseases.  They are spread directly from person to person, or indirectly by touching a surface that has been contaminated with them.  Harmful germs can sometimes lead to serious illness, particularly in vulnerable populations such as young children, the elderly, or people with underlying medical conditions.  To reduce the spread of germs and to prevent yourself and others from getting sick, Ottawa Public Health recommends that you:

  1. Wash your hands with soap and water, or use hand sanitizer
  2. Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your arm, not your hand
  3. Stay Home if you are sick
  4. Get immunized
What is Hand hygiene?
Hand hygiene is the most important way to prevent you and others from getting sick due to an infection. Hand hygiene refers to the cleaning of your hands by either washing them or applying alcohol-based hand rub. Consistently practicing good hand hygiene is essential to reduce the spread of infection in your at home, in daycares, schools, workplaces, and public places.
When should you clean your hands?
It is important to wash your hands:
  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • Before and after changing contact lenses
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or assisting a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After being in a public place or outdoors
  • After touching an animal, feeding an animal, or picking up animal waste
  • After handling garbage
How should you clean your hands?
If you have soap and clean running water available, you can wash your hands to reduce the spread of germs.  However, if soap and water are not available, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. 

How to wash your hands with soap and water:

  • Wet your hands under warm, running water
  • Apply liquid soap
  • Lather and rub hands for at least 20 seconds (hint: if you don't have a timer, sing happy birthday twice!)
  • Rinse your hands 
  • Towel or air dry your hands
  • Turn the taps off with a towel or your arm/sleeve

How to clean your hands with a hand sanitizer

  • Place a quarter-size drop of alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your palm
  • Rub your hands together, palm to palm
  • Rub the back of each hand with palm and fingers of the other hand
  • Rub around each thumb
  • Rub the fingertips of each hand, back and forth in the other hand
  • Rub until your hands are dry (at least 15 seconds)

Quick tip: Applying a non-scented moisturizer to your hands daily will also help ensure your skin remains healthy and prevents chapping leading to optimal hand health!  

Hand Hygiene for Children
To find out more about hand hygiene and children, you can go to:
The Science behind Hand Hygiene
Germs are types of microbes which can cause diseases.  Hand-to-hand contact between two people can spread germs that cause mild illnesses, such as the common cold, or more severe or life-threatening infections such as measles or meningitis.  Even if your hands appear to be clean, they may still be carrying germs that can lead to illness.  Good hand hygiene practices are important to prevent the spread of germs to others and to avoid getting sick yourself.  Evidence shows that good hand hygiene:

Reduces the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 31%1

Reduces the number of people who get sick with respiratory illness by 21%1

Hand Hygiene Frequently Asked Questions
Why is hand washing the best way for you to reduce spread of germs? 
Hand washing remains the best way for people to reduce the spread of germs in most situations because:
  • alcohol-based hand rubs are often used incorrectly by people; for example, they may not use an appropriate amount of ABHR or may wipe it off before it has dried
  • soap and water is more effective for killing certain types of germs
  • soap and water is more effective when hands are visibly soiled
Why should I wash my hands for 20 seconds?
While scientists are still expanding their evidence in this area, experts suggest that washing your hands for only 10 seconds does not allow enough time to achieve a good lather and enough friction to properly clean hands.  Also, most people tend to overestimate how long they spend washing their hands, so a target of 20 seconds helps make sure people wash their hands long enough for germs to be effectively removed.
Can I use alcohol-based hand rub when my hands have dirt on them?
Alcohol-based hand rub is not recommended for visibly soiled hands because the alcohol is inhibited by organic matter.  If your hands are visibly dirty and no running water is available, use a moistened towelette to remove the visible soil and follow with alcohol-based hand rub.
Are alcohol-based hand sanitizers safe to use?
Yes, if used correctly. Using a quarter-size drop and rubbing hands for 15 seconds allows the alcohol content of the product to completely evaporate so there is no residue left on the hands.
Why do they recommend an alcohol-based hand rub with at least 60% alcohol?
Research has shown that alcohol-based hand rubs with an alcohol concentration between 60-95% are more effective at killing germs than those with a lower alcohol concentration2
Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your arm, not your hand
To stop the spread of germs that can make others sick, you should always cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and put your used tissue in a waste basket.  If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve, not your hand.
Why cover your coughs and sneezes?
Coughs can force out thousands of tiny droplets of saliva which can spread germs.  In fact, 3,000 droplets are expelled in a single cough, and some of the droplets can fly out of your mouth at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour.1 Sneezes are even worse than coughs for spreading germs because they can produce as many as 40,000 tiny droplets of saliva which can exit your nose and mouth at speeds greater than 200 miles per hour.1 By covering your coughs and your sneezes, you can help prevent the spread of germs to others.  Also, always remember to wash your hands after coughing or sneezing.
Stay home if you are sick
If it is possible, stay home from work or school when you are sick.  Staying home helps prevent spreading your illness to others.  In particular, young children, people over 65 years of age, and those with compromised immune systems are at greater risk of severe illness and even death from common viruses, such as influenza ("the flu").
Get immunized
Annual influenza immunization is the safest and most effective way to avoid getting the flu or to reduce the severity of your symptoms if you do get sick, and to keep from spreading this virus to others.  For more information, visit the Public Health Agency of Canada's website 'Getting the facts - then get your flu shot


1. Aiello AE.,& Coulbourn RM.,& Perez V., & Larson EL., 2008 Aug. Effect of hand hygiene on infectious disease risk in the community setting: a meta-analysis. Am J Public Health. Retrieved from

2. Kampf G, & Kramer A. 2004 Oct. Epidemiologic background of hand hygiene and evaluation of the most important agents for scrubs and rubs. Clin Microbiol Rev. Retrieved from

3. Jason Socrates Bardi. June 14, 2009. The Gross Science of a Cough and a Sneeze. Live Science. Retrieved from

Hand Hygiene Resources

Learn more about preventing the spread of germs in the below resources prepared by OPH.

The information below is available in other formats. Contact Ottawa Public Health at 613-580-6744 to request the document in an accessible format.

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