The most important thing you can do: wash your hands, often

News of coronavirus infections is causing many people to panic. It's unclear how widespread or deadly this illness is going to be, but for once, instead of telling you not to worry, I'm going to suggest riding that wave. Channel that fear into useful action – and find the lessons that go beyond this outbreak.

A security guard wearing a protective mask checks the temperature of a person entering an office building.Credit:Bloomberg

There are absolutely things we can do to protect people from infection by this novel respiratory virus, which has caused hundreds of deaths in Wuhan, China, and has spread to other countries. Some involve a societal response, but others are very simple.

Most important, wash your hands. Wash them often. Wash them for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. Wash them especially well if you're about to eat. Wash them after you've blown your nose, coughed or sneezed. Make it routine that all members of the household wash their hands when they get home.

I'm a pediatrician, and I know it can be hard to do this yourself, let alone get others to do it. So make it a game. Offer incentives. There's almost nothing that you, or your family, can do that will protect you more from infections.

Here are five steps: (1) wet your hands, (2) lather them, and then (3) scrub them for at least 20 seconds. No one ever looks at a clock, so try singing the "Happy Birthday" song twice, from start to finish. If you're trying to get kids to do this, come up with a funny hand-washing song to the same tune. A colleague of mine recommends singing the alphabet.

I know that 20 seconds seems like a long time. While we don't have huge randomise controlled trials to prove this is the optimal amount, research does exist to say that shorter times aren't as good at removing germs, and much longer times can actually damage the skin and can be counterproductive.

Then (4) rinse, and (5) dry. It's not that hard. If you can't wash your hands, then hand sanitiser with at least 60 per cent alcohol will work in a pinch, but it's not as good.

Don't touch your face in general, especially with unwashed hands. Don't shake hands with people who are sick. If you're sick, stay away from other people.

Clean the objects and surfaces that you touch a lot. Clean them well with cleaning sprays or wipes that will kill germs.

What's not recommended for everyone? Face masks. If you're sick, they may help prevent you from spreading the virus, but they don't do as much to help keep healthy people from getting sick.

Should you be worried about getting infected with viruses? Sure. Have you gotten a flu shot yet? Channel your fears into productive behaviours. That's how you'll significantly reduce your risk from being infected with 2019-nCoV. It'll also help you from being infected with the flu. It'll even help protect you from getting a cold. Wins all around.

The New York Times

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