11 Things That Can Happen When You Don't Wash Your Hands Enough, According To Experts

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Even though it isn't guaranteed to cause health problems, there are quite a few gross things that can happen when you don't wash your hands. Because, as we all know, germs are everywhere. And it often doesn't take much to pick them up throughout the day, or pass them along to others.

Thankfully, the immune system usually steps in before bacteria and viruses can do any real damage. But if you aren't washing your hands regularly, you may be unnecessarily putting yourself at risk. After all, "the number one way to prevent disease is hand washing," Dr. Elizabeth Trattner, tells Bustle. So even though it can be easy to put it off, it's much healthier to pop off to the bathroom and give your mitts a quick scrub, especially after coming in contact with dirty surfaces or if you happen to be sick.

"The best hand washing technique is to rinse hands under warm water, then lather with soap for 20 to 30 seconds, getting all areas of the hands," Brianne Bell, registered dietician and food service supervisor, tells Bustle. "Rinse under warm water and dry with a clean towel." That should help reduce the risk of all the gross things below, which may be more likely to happen if you don't wash your hands.

1. You Might Catch More Colds


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 80 percent of infectious disease is spread by touch. And really, all it takes is the simple act of grabbing a germ-riddled doorknob and then touching your nose, in order to get infected. So let this serve as motivation to whip out the soap on a more regular basis, not only for your own sake, but for everyone else's health as well.

Of course, that doesn't mean you need to become paranoid. Most of the time your body protect you from germs, especially if your immune system is strong. But even still, washing up whenever you've been around someone with a cold is always a good idea.

2. Fecal Matter Can End Up In Your Food

It's a gross truth, but fecal matter is lurking in more places than you might think — including your hands. And rather disgustingly, those particles can get into food and make you sick, according to the CDC.

It may not be something you want to imagine. But as long as you're washing your hands after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, walking your dog, or even using public transportation, you should be able to lower your risk.

3. You Could Get Or Spread Food Poisoning


There are many ways to come down with a case of food poisoning, including eating undercooked meats, or food that has gone bad. You can also get pretty darn sick by preparing meals with dirty hands. (See above information about fecal matter).

According to the CDC, a large percentage of food-borne disease outbreaks are spread by contaminated hands. But appropriate hand washing practices can reduce the risk of food-borne illness and other infections. So do yourself, and everyone else, a huge favor by washing before you handle food.

4. You're Infecting Everyone You Touch

Sure, it's polite to cover your sneeze with your hand than it is to let if fly. And yet, how often do you really wash up after doing so? It's easy to forget, or to touch a few surfaces first — and just like that the germs spread.

Again, hand washing is the best way to prevent the transfer of disease, which is why "this is one of the first things you learn in medical school or in any health profession," Dr. Trattner says.

In a pinch, using hand sanitizer can cut back on the transfer of germs, Bell says. But nothing beats a good ol' scrub when it comes to reducing the amount of bacteria and viruses on your hands.

5. You Can Get Pink Eye

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Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is an eye infection many people catch in elementary school, mostly because it's highly contagious and thus spreads like wildfire among kids. But adults can get it, too.

In fact, often all it takes is a quick moment of hand-to-eye contact when you have an infected person's secretions on your hand, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, before the typical symptoms of redness, itchiness, and pus in the eyes will begin.

6. Your Snacks Can Get Contaminated

Think of all the times you've plunged a dirty hand into a bag of chips, box of crackers, or bowl of popcorn. If you aren't washing your hands, it's so easy to contaminate these shared foods with germs, according to the New York State Department of Health.

This is also why you may not want to share food or utensils with someone who is sick, especially if they have the norovirus. According to the CDC, if you get the norovirus illness, you can shed billions of norovirus particles that you can’t see without a microscope, and it only takes a few of these particles to make people sick.

7. You Might Pick Up Hepatitis A


Not washing your hands can also lead to hepatitis A. "This is a serious liver virus that spreads when people do not wash their hands before making food and drinks," Dr. Tania Elliott, board-certified allergist/immunologist at NYU Langone Health, tells Bustle. "It also spreads through sexual contact with people who have hepatitis A, and by eating foods contaminated with the virus."

You can, however, make it less likely to happen. As Dr. Elliott says, "Washing your hands with soap and warm water after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, or before making food and drinks can help stop the spread of hepatitis A."

8. Diarrhea May Become A Frequent Visitor

Not washing your hands regularly can increase your chances of catching an illness that leads to diarrhea. One of these might be shigellosis, a bacterial infection with symptoms that include watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever, according to the CDC.

There is good news, though, in that simply washing your hands — especially after coming in contact with germ-y surfaces — can prevent about 30 percent of diarrhea-related sicknesses, the CDC says.

9. You Might Catch The Epstein-Barr Virus

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We talked about poop in your food. Now what about urine, or saliva? Turns out, these are carriers of diseases like typhoid, cytomegalovirus, and Epstein-Barr virus, which are spread by contaminated hands, according to the CDC.

Epstein-Barr is the virus that causes mononucleosis, AKA the "kissing disease," which can lead to fever, weakness, swollen neck glands, and fatigue that lasts for weeks. "This is spread through saliva, so kissing, sharing food or beverages, or touching something with saliva on it are all ways in which it can be transmitted," Dr. Elliott says. "Hand washing, especially after touching the face and mouth [...] can help prevent the spread."

10. It Could Contribute To Antibiotic Resistance

According to the CDC, reducing the number of infections people get by washing your hands can help prevent the overuse of antibiotics, which is the single most important factor leading to antibiotic resistance around the world.

"Antibiotics are often overused when someone has a viral infection (remember, antibiotics only fight bacterial infections, not viruses)," Dr. Elliott says. "So, the fewer viral infections (by proper hand washing and other sanitary measures), the less use of unnecessary antibiotics."

In fact, hand washing can also prevent people from getting sick with germs that are already resistant to antibiotics and that can be difficult to treat, according to the CDC. So help out everyone on the planet, and wash your those hands!

11. Acne Can Crop Up

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Not washing your hands can also increase the chances of an acne breakout, all thanks to the way bacteria can transfer from your hands to your face.

"Touching, rubbing, and picking [at the] face are common causes for more acne," Dr. Yoram Harth, board-certified dermatologist and medical director of MDacne, tells Bustle. "When the hands are not washed, the bacteria on the skin of our hands spread to the face and can cause more acne."

Germs truly are lurking around every corner. And they can obviously cause and spread all sorts of diseases, from the common cold, to the norovirus, and even hepatitis A. But by getting into the habit of washing your hands regularly — especially before touching food — you may be able to enjoy a more germ-free life.

This post was originally published on 4/12/2016. It was updated on 6/7/2019.

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