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Handwashing is one of the simplest, easiest, and most effective ways to prevent getting or passing on many germs. Amazingly, it is also one of the most overlooked. Healthcare experts recommend scrubbing your hands vigorously for at least 15 seconds with soap and water, about as long as it takes to recite the English alphabet. This will wash away cold and flu viruses and staph and strep bacteria as well as many other disease-causing microbes. It is especially important to wash your hands

  • Before preparing or eating food
  • After coughing or sneezing
  • After using the bathroom
  • After changing a diaper

Healthcare providers should be especially conscientious about washing their hands before and after examining any patient. Workers in childcare and eldercare settings, too, should be vigilant about handwashing around those in their care.


There are medicines on the market that help prevent you from getting infected by germs. For example, you can prevent getting the flu by taking an antiviral medicine. Vaccines, however, are the best defense against flu viruses.

Under specific circumstances, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics to protect you from getting certain bacteria such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis. Healthcare experts usually advise people traveling to areas where malaria is present to take antiparasitic medicines to prevent possible infection.


In 1796, Edward Jenner laid the foundation for modern vaccines by discovering one of the basic principles of immunization. He had used a relatively harmless microbe, cowpox virus, to bring about an immune response that would help protect people from getting infected by the related but deadly smallpox virus.

Dr. Jenner’s discovery helped researchers find ways to ease human disease suffering worldwide. By the beginning of the 20th century, doctors were immunizing patients with vaccines for diphtheria, typhoid fever, and smallpox.

Today, safe and effective vaccines prevent childhood diseases, including measles, whooping cough, chickenpox, and the form of meningitis caused by Haemophilus influenzae type B, or HIB, virus.

Vaccines, however, are not only useful for young children. Adolescents and adults should get vaccinated regularly for tetanus and diphtheria. A vaccine to prevent meningococcal meningitis is recommended for all adolescents. In addition, adults who never had diseases such as measles or chickenpox during childhood or who never received vaccines to prevent them should consider being immunized. Childhood diseases can be far more serious in adults.

If you travel or plan to travel outside the United States, getting the immunizations that are recommended for your destination(s) is very important. Vaccines can prevent yellow fever, polio, typhoid fever, hepatitis A, cholera, rabies, and other diseases that are more prevalent abroad than in the United States.

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Last Updated November 03, 2010