With flu season in full swing and the coronavirus spreading rapidly throughout China, it’s more important than ever that people take precautions to stay healthy.
Officials in China have confirmed more than 6,000 cases of the respiratory illness and 132 deaths, and there have been five confirmed cases of the disease in the United States. As for the flu, there have been at least 15 million American cases this season as of Jan. 18, including 8,200 deaths — 54 of which were pediatric deaths.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one of the best ways to protect yourself from these illnesses is to wash your hands often, and with the right technique. When your hands are clean, you can prevent germs from spreading from one person to another.
To successfully wash hands, follow these five steps recommended by the CDC.
First, wet your hands with clean, running water — warm or cold. After turning off the tap, apply soap to your hands and rub them together.
Make sure you’re lathering the bubbles between your fingers, under your nails and on the backs of your hands.
This is the important part — keep scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds. If you need help keeping track, try humming the full “Happy Birthday” song twice.
After you’ve washed thoroughly, rinse your hands under clean, running water. Grab a clean towel to dry your hands, or air dry if needed.
While the CDC recommends that you wash your hands often, it also gives a list of specific instances in which washing hands is absolutely necessary.
These include, before, during and after preparing food, before or after caring for someone sick, after using the bathroom, after touching an animal or an animal’s food, after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, after touching garbage, before and after treating a wound and after changing diapers.
In addition to hand washing, Dr. Angela Hewlett, medical director of the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit, tells PEOPLE, “It’s always important for people to remember to practice infection control methods like getting their flu shot, covering their cough and staying home from work or school if they’re sick.”
“That can prevent the spread of any illness, not just influenza, and this coronavirus would be in the same category,” she adds.
Hewlett doesn’t agree, however, with wearing masks to prevent flu or coronavirus.
Americans have scrambled to buy surgical masks over the last week, and major retailers like Amazon are out of stock.
“If a person is ill and seeking medical care, often a mask will be placed on them — but that’s because if you’re sick, a mask can prevent you spreading it to other people when you cough or sneeze,” says Hewlett. “Wearing a mask when you’re not sick has not been proven to help protect you with this kind of illness.”