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7 Things That Can Happen If You Don’t Wash Your Hands

Handwashing is a simple act that you (hopefully!) do many times a day, but it's even more important than you think.

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Female hand pour cough syrup in a measuring cup on a light background. The concept of health. White bear studio/Shutterstock

You can get a serious respiratory illness

What your mother always said is true: If you don’t wash your hands, you’re going to get sick. You can get the common cold, yes, but the risks are much more severe than that. The flu, pneumonia, adenovirus, and even hand, foot, and mouth disease are all respiratory illnesses you can develop from neglecting to wash your hands, according to Health Canada. Good handwashing practices can cut the number of colds and respiratory illnesses you contract by 16 to 21 percent.

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Close-up roll toilet paper in restroom with hand pullingSasin Paraksa/Shutterstock

You can get diarrhea


Diarrhea-related illnesses can strike easily in people who don’t wash their hands. Tanya McIntosh, an infection-control practitioner at the University of Kansas Medical Center, says, “Handwashing after you go to the bathroom is another key time to perform hand hygiene. Bacteria and viruses from feces (poop) can cause various diarrhea-related illnesses, including salmonella, norovirus, and E. coli 0157.” Um gross, these are the places in the hospital with the most germs.

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Black woman cooking in the kitchenRawpixel.com/Shutterstock

You can get (and give) food poisoning


Another time when handwashing plays a key role in avoiding illness? When you’re cooking. McIntosh cites frequent washing as essential to preventing cross-contamination. “Foods such as raw meat, vegetables with dirt on them, or eggs can harbor potentially harmful bacteria that can make you sick if not handled correctly,” she says. Here’s how to tell the difference between food poisoning and a stomach bug.

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A hand trying to open the door by holding the doorknob with a white copy space on the door.brizmaker/Shutterstock

You can infect other people


Remember, your hands are touching pretty much everything around you throughout the day. This means that when you touch a doorknob after touching your eyes, mouth, nose, or face, you’re putting whoever touches it after you at risk of picking up your germs. And likewise, when you touch that doorknob, you’re also picking up the germs of everyone who touched it before you. If that creeps you out, wait until you see the germiest everyday items that are dirtier than a toilet seat. 

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Father holding his baby girl at homewavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

You could be putting people with weak immune systems at risk


According to anesthesiologist Christian Whitney, DO, a pain management consultant for Restorative Pain Solutions, “The risk of not washing your hands is that you could get exposed to potentially harmful infections and also infect others, especially young infants, the elderly, and those that are immunocompromised and susceptible to infections.” In other words, by not washing your hands after going to the bathroom, or touching potentially contaminated foods, you can create huge complications for those around you who have weaker immune systems. Minimize the risk by being vigilant about washing your hands. Take note: These are the items a germaphobe should never share.

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Close up of chef washing his hands in commercial kitchen. Man washing hands in a sink with tap water.Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

You could be contributing to antibiotic resistance


Handwashing is the most important step in not catching an infection in the first place, so doing it regularly can reduce the number of infections that are spread—infections that are often treated with antibiotics. Handwashing can prevent about one-third of diarrhea-related illnesses and about one-fifth of respiratory infections. It can also reduce by almost 60 percent the spread of diarrhea-related illnesses in people with weakened immune systems. Fewer infections mean less widespread antibiotic treatment, and the overuse of antibiotics is the leading cause of antibiotic resistance. Washing your hands can also prevent the spread of difficult-to-treat illnesses from germs that have already become resistant to antibiotics. 

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Father and son using wash hand sanitizer gel pump dispenser.Elizaveta Galitckaia/Shutterstock

You could be relying on hand sanitizer too much


Hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes are surely beneficial in a pinch, but they shouldn’t be your go-to. According to Dr. Whitney, it’s not just the soap that kills the pathogens on your hands. “The additional mechanical action of lathering and the friction of rubbing your hands together and washing away the germs and debris is what makes handwashing more effective,” he says. “However, handwashing needs to be done properly, which means lathering with enough soap and scrubbing for at least 20 seconds.” There are some pathogens that hand sanitizers are not effective against—one of them is C. difficile, which people often contract after prolonged antibiotic use. Next, find out which household items you’re not washing nearly enough.

Originally Published on Reader's Digest