Stop the spread of germs

Last revised on March 8, 2021.

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 populations at higher risk such as young children, older adults 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 alcohol-based hand rub (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 putting on your mask and before and after taking your mask off
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • Before and after changing contact lenses
  • After using the toilet
  • After helping with someone’s personal care (such as changing a diaper,  assisting someone who has used the toilet or assisting someone to eat)
  • 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
  • After doing household cleaning (e.g., toilets)
  • After coming into contact with high-touch surfaces in public spaces (handrails, elevator buttons, doorknobs, etc.)
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 70% alcohol. If hands are visibly soiled, alcohol-based hand rub will not be effective, so try to remove any soil with a wipe if possible.  

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 15 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
Learn more about hand hygiene and children.
The science behind hand hygiene

Germs are types of microbes which can cause diseases. Hands can become contaminated by touching other people or objects and 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 (ABHR) are often used incorrectly by people; for example, they may not use an appropriate amount of ABHR (hand sanitizer) or may wipe it off before it has dried
  • Soap and water are more effective for killing certain types of germs
  • Soap and water are more effective when hands are visibly soiled
Why should I wash my hands for at least 15 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 setting a target 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 at least 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 70% alcohol?

Hand sanitizers for personal use should have an alcohol concentration of 70% and higher in order to kill most viruses, including the COVID-19 virus.

In hospital and health care settings, hand sanitizers should have an alcohol concentration of 70% and higher in order to kill COVID-19 and other bacteria and viruses that are of greater concern in these settings.

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. Remember to wash your hands after coughing or sneezing.


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. 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. 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

Stay home from work or school when you are sick. Staying home helps prevent spreading your illness to others. In particular, young children, older adults and those with compromised immune systems are at greater risk of severe illness and even death from common viruses, such as influenza ("the flu").

Cleaning your home to prevent the spread of germs

Germs: Get them where they live.Ill person laying on a couch with a tissue box

Commonly touched surfaces and items should be cleaned and disinfected frequently (e.g., at least once a day) to limit the potential spread of germs. 

Seek and find

When a germ strikes, it's likely to hide out in sneaky places and stay there a while. Respiratory viruses such as flu live on some surfaces for about 24 hours. Norovirus, a common cause of stomach illness, can stick around for days or even weeks. And both are super contagious.

Clean first then disinfect

Wiping down a countertop with soapy water will get rid of some germs but if someone has the flu, diarrhea or is throwing up, you also want to kill the germs or disinfect. Look for a cleaner that specifically says “disinfectant” and follow the directions for use. Another option is to mix 10 mL of bleach with one litre of water (or two tsp of bleach with four cups of water) to disinfect hard surfaces with two minutes of contact time*.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be reasonable to instead use a mixture of 20 mL of bleach with one litre of water (or four tsp of bleach with four cups of water) to disinfect hard surfaces with one minute of contact time. It is important to remember to make a fresh bleach solution each time you disinfect or at least every day.

*Note: The contact time, also known as the wet time, is the time that the disinfectant needs to stay wet on a surface to make sure it can kill all the germs. It is the length of time you leave the solution on the surface before wiping it down.

Cleaning 

Germs love to hide in and on wet surfaces. That makes the kitchen or bathroom sponge the perfect tool for spreading sickness. If someone is sick, replace your sponge with a microfiber cloth instead. It soaks up bacteria and other germs better than a regular cotton cloth. Ensure you launder it frequently. If you want to clean with a sponge, wet it and put it in the microwave for two minutes before use.

Wear gloves and wash your hands

Disposable rubber, vinyl or latex gloves can keep germs off your hands while you clean and protect your skin from harsh products, too. Throw them out when you're done so you don’t spread disease and always wash your hands thoroughly afterward.

Stop the spread

Be careful not to bring germs from the bathroom to the kitchen with your cleaning supplies or on your cleaning cloth. You can use a different colour cloth for each room to keep them separate.

Someone where gloves while cleaning a toilet with a sponge and toilet brushThe bathroom

This room is usually at the top of the list of high germ household areas. After an illness hits, disinfect here with a mix of bleach and water. Don’t forget the toilet lever, shower faucets, cabinet handles, doorknobs and light switches.

The kitchen

Many viruses that cause stomach “bugs” are very small and easily get into food and meal prep areas. It just takes 18 norovirus particles to make you sick. If you’re the one who’s sick, don’t cook until you haven’t had any symptoms for 48 hours. Disinfect everything you touch, like the refrigerator handle, inside drawers, the coffeepot, microwave, faucets and stove knobs.

The bedrooms

If you’re dealing with diarrhea or vomiting, wash dirty clothes, soiled linens or stuffed toys right away. Don’t shake them - that spreads germs, and don’t hold them close to your body. Launder fabrics in a washing machine with hot water and dry in a clothes dryer on a hot cycle. Disinfect night table, bedposts and changing tables and look for things that could be contaminated. Wash toys with hard surfaces in the dishwasher.

The family room

Think about where the sick person rested. Flu germs can spread up to two metres away when someone coughs or sneezes. If a little one was sick, also ask: Where did he put his mouth? Then clean those areas. Don’t forget high touch areas like remote controls, phones, computer keypads, doorknobs, light switches and even your car keys. For sensitive electronics, spray a fine mist of disinfectant on a cloth first, then wipe gently.

The carpet and the couchSomeone looking at the label on a bottle of a cleaning chemical

If poop or vomit gets on the floor or furniture, use paper towels to soak it up right away. Then put it in a plastic bag, tie or seal it and throw it away. (This is another time those disposable gloves can come in handy.) Thoroughly clean soiled carpets and soft furnishings with hot water and detergent or carpet shampoo. Steam cleaning can be used on soft furnishings (if the material can withstand cleaning with steam).

Follow instructions

It might be tempting to mix cleaning products to make sure your home is germ-free, but don’t. Mixing some cleaners and disinfectants (like chlorine bleach and ammonia) can be harmful, even deadly. Others can irritate your eyes, nose or throat and cause breathing problems.

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

Safe and effective vaccines for COVID-19 are also becoming available to protect us against COVID-19. While many people infected with COVID-19 experience only mild illness, others may get a severe illness or even die. There is no way to know how COVID-19 will affect you, even if you are not at increased risk of severe complications. COVID-19 vaccination helps protect you by creating an antibody response without having to experience the illness of COVID-19. Visit the COVID-19 Vaccine webpage for more information.


References

  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.
  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.
  3. Jason Socrates Bardi. June 14, 2009. The Gross Science of a Cough and a Sneeze. Live Science. 
Hand Hygiene Resources

Contact Information

Provincial Vaccine Information Line

  • 7 days a week, from 8 am to 8 pm
  • Call if you have questions about Ontario's COVID-19 vaccination program.
  • Service is available in multiple languages.
  • Telephone: 1-888-999-6488
  • TTY: 1-866-797-0007

Ottawa Public Health COVID-19 Telephone Line

  • Monday to Friday, from 8 am to 6 pm
  • Weekends, from 9 am to 4 pm
  • Translation is available in multiple languages
  • Telephone: 613-580-6744 follow the prompts to the COVID-19 telephone line
  • TTY: 613-580-9656

Emergency Services

  • If you are in distress (e.g., significant trouble breathing, chest pain, fainting or have a significant worsening of any chronic disease symptoms), do not go to the Assessment Centre or a COVID-19 Care clinic. Go to the nearest Emergency Department or call 9-1-1.

See someone not respecting COVID-19 rules?

How to access help during COVID-19

  • 211 Ontario can help you find financial and social support during COVID-19
  • Telephone: 2-1-1

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