IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers| IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers|
Photo By: Thommen Jose

How to reduce the risk of illness by washing your hands

If you get sick abroad, your travel plans and finances may take a hit. Trip itinerary changes, re-booking fees, and unexpected medical costs can add up and cause unnecessary stress. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget or ignore health considerations that we take for granted back home. Fortunately, many travel-related illnesses can be minimized by following simple hygiene practices, such as washing your hands. 

The power is in your hands!

We can’t stress this enough. You should always wash your hands regularly and thoroughly during travel (and at home too).

Our hands carry thousands of microorganisms such as viruses and bacteria. Many are harmless but some are responsible for illnesses like the common cold, influenza, travellers’ diarrhea, and Hepatitis A. Since we touch our face hundreds of times a day – often unconsciously – unwanted germs enter our body through our eyes, mouth, and nose to attack our immune system.

Every day we come into contact with surfaces or food contaminated by someone who hasn’t washed their hands properly. For example, unwanted germs can hitch a ride on our hands when we exchange currency, touch railings, use automated bank machines, eat improperly handled or cooked food, or practice poor body and toilet hygiene.

Washing your hands is also proven to save lives. Not only are you protecting your health, you have the power to break the cycle and prevent others from getting sick. Proper hand washing reduces the chance of children, older persons, and those with chronic conditions or a compromised immune system from developing health complications.

Protect yourself and others

Here’s a reminder of when and how to wash your hands properly.

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and warm water (cold water is fine too if there’s no warm water available), singing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice.
  • Make sure you are washing your hands properly (see the following infographic for guidance).
  • No access to soap and water? Carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Wash your hands every time they are dirty; before preparing or eating food, after using the toilet or changing a diaper; before dealing with cuts, scrapes, or wounds; after petting animals; and after handling garbage or compost.
  • Keep your hands away from your face, mouth, nose, and eyes.
  • Sneeze into your sleeve if you don’t have a tissue or handkerchief. If you use a tissue, dispose of it immediately.
  • Since you may not find all the hygienic amenities you need during your trip, considering packing these items in your Travel Medicine Kit:
  • No rinse body soap, castile liquid soap, or hand sanitizer
  • Extra tissue, toilet paper, and wet wipes available in travel packs
  • Non-toxic facial cleansers

Last reviewed and updated: December 11, 2020.

Image from the World Health Organization.