Hygiene is the practice of keeping oneself and one’s surroundings clean and free from dirt, germs, and disease. Hygiene is essential for maintaining good health and preventing communicable diseases. Communicable diseases are illnesses that can be transmitted from one person or animal to another through direct or indirect contact. They are caused by infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites that can invade the body and cause various symptoms. Some of the most common communicable diseases are influenza (flu), COVID-19, tuberculosis (TB), cholera, hepatitis, and HIV/AIDS.
However, not all hygiene practices are equally effective or necessary for preventing communicable diseases. Some hygiene practices are based on scientific evidence and proven results, while others are based on myths and misconceptions. In this article, you will learn more about the history, importance, and types of hygiene. You will also learn how to distinguish between what really works and what does not work in terms of hygiene for preventing communicable diseases.
A Brief History of Hygiene
The history of hygiene is intertwined with the history of human civilization. Since ancient times, people have been aware of the importance of hygiene for their health and well-being. They have tried to find ways to keep themselves and their environments clean and safe from disease. Some of the earliest methods include bathing (washing the body with water or other liquids), grooming (trimming or removing hair, nails, or skin), clothing (covering the body with fabrics or materials), and waste disposal (removing or burying excreta, garbage, or corpses).
However, it was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that significant advances were made in the fields of microbiology, immunology, epidemiology, and public health to understand and improve hygiene. In 1847, Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that hand washing could reduce the incidence of puerperal fever (a deadly infection that affects women after childbirth) among doctors and nurses. In 1854, John Snow discovered the source of a cholera outbreak in London by mapping the cases and identifying a contaminated water pump. In 1865, Louis Pasteur proposed the germ theory of disease, which stated that microorganisms are responsible for many infectious diseases. In 1905, Joseph Lister introduced antiseptic surgery, which involved using chemicals to sterilize instruments and wounds.
Since then, many more discoveries and innovations have been made to improve hygiene and prevent communicable diseases. Water treatment, sewage systems, sanitation facilities, soap production, disinfection methods, vaccination programs, and infection control guidelines have been developed to reduce the exposure and transmission of infectious agents. Hygiene education campaigns, behavior change interventions, and hygiene promotion strategies have been implemented to raise awareness and improve practices among individuals and communities.
How Hygiene Can Prevent Communicable Diseases
Hygiene can prevent communicable diseases by breaking the chain of infection. The chain of infection is a model that describes how an infectious agent can move from a source to a host and cause disease. The chain of infection consists of six links: the infectious agent (the microorganism that causes disease), the reservoir (the place where the infectious agent lives and multiplies), the portal of exit (the way the infectious agent leaves the reservoir), the mode of transmission (the way the infectious agent travels from one place to another), the portal of entry (the way the infectious agent enters a new host), and the susceptible host (the person or animal that can get infected by the infectious agent).
Hygiene can prevent communicable diseases by interrupting one or more links in the chain of infection. For example:
- Hygiene can reduce or eliminate the infectious agent by killing or removing it from surfaces or objects with chemicals or physical methods.
- Hygiene can prevent or limit the growth of the infectious agent in the reservoir by maintaining a clean and dry environment with adequate ventilation and temperature.
- Hygiene can block or seal the portal of exit by covering wounds, sores, or lesions with bandages or dressings.
- Hygiene can avoid or reduce the mode of transmission by avoiding contact with infected people or animals, wearing personal protective equipment such as masks or gloves, washing hands before and after touching anything potentially contaminated, and disposing safely of any waste or materials that may contain infectious agents.
- Hygiene can protect or close the portal of entry by keeping mucous membranes such as eyes, nose, mouth, genitals clean and moist with water or saline solutions.
- Hygiene can enhance or strengthen the susceptible host by boosting immunity with vaccines or nutrition.
Types of Hygiene for Preventing Communicable Diseases
There are different types of hygiene for preventing communicable diseases depending on the level and target of intervention. These include personal hygiene (hygiene practices performed by individuals for themselves), environmental hygiene (hygiene practices performed by individuals or groups for their surroundings), and medical hygiene (hygiene practices performed by health professionals for patients or health facilities).
Personal hygiene refers to the hygiene practices that individuals perform for themselves to maintain their health and well-being. These include:
- Washing hands with soap and water or alcohol-based sanitizer before and after eating, drinking, cooking, handling food, using the toilet, changing diapers, caring for sick people or animals, touching wounds or body fluids, and touching anything potentially contaminated.
- Brushing teeth with toothpaste and water at least twice a day and flossing daily to prevent dental caries, gum disease, and bad breath.
- Bathing or showering with soap and water at least once a day and changing into clean clothes to remove dirt, sweat, oil, and germs from the skin and hair.
- Trimming or shaving hair, nails, or skin as needed to prevent infections, injuries, or infestations.
- Washing or changing underwear, socks, and towels daily and other clothes as needed to prevent odors, stains, or diseases.
- Cleaning ears with a soft cloth or cotton swab gently to remove excess wax or debris.
- Cleaning nose with a tissue or saline spray gently to remove mucus or dust.
- Cleaning eyes with water or eye drops gently to remove dirt or irritants.
- Cleaning genitals with water or mild soap gently to prevent infections or irritations.
- Cleaning anus with water or toilet paper gently after defecation to prevent infections or irritations.
Environmental hygiene refers to the hygiene practices that individuals or groups perform for their surroundings to maintain a healthy and safe environment. These include:
- Boiling, filtering, chlorinating, or treating water before drinking, cooking, washing, or bathing to prevent waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, dysentery, or hepatitis.
- Storing food in clean containers at appropriate temperatures and discarding spoiled food to prevent foodborne diseases such as salmonella, E. coli, botulism, or listeria.
- Cooking food thoroughly and washing fruits and vegetables before eating to prevent foodborne diseases such as campylobacter, norovirus, trichinosis, or toxoplasmosis.
- Cleaning dishes, utensils, and surfaces with soap and water or disinfectant after use to prevent foodborne diseases such as staphylococcus, shigella, clostridium, or rotavirus.
- Disposing of garbage in sealed bags or bins and recycling or composting organic waste to prevent pests such as rats, mice, cockroaches, flies, mosquitoes, or bedbugs that can transmit diseases such as plague, leptospirosis, typhus, malaria, dengue fever