Does hand washing have a downside?
“Save Lives, Clean Your Hands.” Those four words make up the World Health Organization’s (WHO) slogan for its annual campaign to promote good hand hygiene practices among health care workers which reduces patients’ risk of developing infections during their hospital stay.
While the benefits of washing hands are undeniable, the increased focus on hand-hygiene is causing uptick in cases of irritant contact dermatitis (ICD) among hospital clinicians, according to results of a recent study published in the British Journal of Dermatology.
“Irritant contact dermatitis is an inflammatory condition that occurs when the skin’s natural protective layer breaks down due to frequent exposure to harsh elements or chemicals,” says Dr. Mona Gandhi, a dermatologist at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill. “Dermatitis can leave skin dry and red, causing itching and a burning sensation.”
Researchers at the University of Manchester analyzed dermatology reports from a national database that included information on more than 7,000 cases of work-related dermatitis between 1996 and 2012. More than one-quarter of the cases occurred among hospital workers.
Study leaders found that health care workers were 4.5 times more likely to have dermatitis in 2012 than they were in 1996. During the 16-year period, the rate of the irritating skin condition increased substantially among health care workers, while the number of ICD cases actually decreased or stayed the same for two control groups composed of persons from industries and professions outside of health care.
The researchers conclude that the steady climb in cases of dermatitis is the result of increased awareness and usage of hand-washing guidelines by the health care community to minimize hospital infections like MRSA and C. difficile.
“The results of the study are no surprise given the significance of hand washing for patient safety,” says Dr. Gandhi. “Every time hands are washed the skin loses moisture, and the protective layer is stripped away. When hand washing is performed repeatedly, as is the case among hospital workers, dermatitis is likely to occur unless precautionary steps are taken.”
About the Author
Julie Nakis, health enews contributor, is manager of public affairs at Advocate Children's Hospital. She earned her BA in communications from the University of Iowa – Go Hawkeyes! In her free time, she enjoys spending time with friends and family, exploring the city and cheering on the Chicago Cubs and Blackhawks.