July 20, 2005 — Yet another reason to have your kids head for the sink a few times a day: Hand washing with soap can reduce the number of pneumonia-related infections in children under the age of five by more than 50 percent, according to a study published in The Lancet.
The study is the first to show that hand washing can prevent pneumonia, an inflammation of the lung caused by infection with bacteria, viruses, and other organisms. Pneumonia is the leading killer of children under five worldwide.
Most of the time, a child's body can successfully fight off a cold or the flu. But in the case of pneumonia, the virus—or in some cases, bacteria—manages to make its way into the lungs. Once there, the germs inflame the lung tissue and cause the air sacs to fill up with fluid and pus, making it more difficult for oxygen to get into the bloodstream.
Symptoms are similar to those of a cold, but parents should look out for a lingering cough, fever, chills, wheezing, and labored or rapid breathing. In addition, parents should watch to see if their child's nostrils flare—or if the skin between his ribs caves in—when he breathes. (Note: If you suspect your child has pneumonia, contact your doctor immediately.)
This new study also showed that hand washing with soap significantly reduced the number of diarrheal infections, the second leading cause of death in children under five. In addition, there was a 47 percent reduction in the prevalence of impetigo, a skin infection, in children who bathed daily with soap.
Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta reportedly said one of the things this research shows is that there are even more health benefits to the simple act of hand washing than we previously anticipated, and that this fact may lead to greater efforts to promote it, especially in poorer countries.
When it comes to hand washing, water alone is not as effective as washing with soap and water for at least 15 seconds. Parents should encourage children to wash their hands with soap and water for as long as it takes them to sing their ABCs.
Washing hands is particularly important before preparing food and eating, after using the toilet, and after cleaning an infant.
The study, conducted in Karachi, Pakistan, examined more than 900 households and was funded by the Procter & Gamble Company.
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