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The best way to stay healthy? It takes 15 seconds

Health Advisor is a regular column where contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging. Follow us @Globe_Health.

Of the over two million different types of microbial species, only about 1,450 are pathogenic; of those you may only encounter a dozen or so in your lifetime.

You know most of their names from their time in the media spotlight: C. difficile, Campylobacter, E. coli, flu virus, Listeria, norovirus, Rhinovirus, RSV, salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus (including MRSA), Streptococcus and yeast. You also know the harm they can cause, from gastrointestinal problems to skin infections, even pneumonia and death. You can call these the dirty dozen.

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The key to staying healthy is to keep those pathogens away so they cannot cause infection. There are several different options to clean the environment so you don't come into contact with them. Yet, when it comes to your body, the only option is to maintain a hygienic lifestyle and adhere to the most effective pathogen prevention process known: Clean your hands.

The notion that soap or alcohol hand sanitizer saves you from microbial harm may seem like a broken record, engrained in most of us since childhood.

Though you may be desensitized to the message, there is a reason for its unending utterance and one you should take to heart and hand: Up to 80 per cent of all infections you get are spread through hands. Yet one simple wash consisting of 15 seconds of lather or sanitizer rub can reduce if not eliminate that risk.

The importance of hand hygiene is so great the World Health Organization has a day set aside each year to promote and celebrate the act. It's called SAVE LIVES: Clean Your Hands Day and it is celebrated on May 5th of each year. It's been ongoing for nearly a decade and has gained international support. Originally, the goal was to improve the then-dreadfully poor rate of handwashing in healthcare facilities, leading to unnecessary infections. But now the scope has spread to the general public.

The reasons behind the promotion of hand hygiene have also expanded as recent studies have revealed the importance of a good wash or rub not only to your body, but also to your wallet.

Back in 2010, a group at Duke University looked at a health-care facility and evaluated the cost savings from a single per cent increase in hand hygiene compliance per infected patient. They found a whopping $40,000 (U.S.) in savings was possible including admission, care and antibiotic use. Over the course of a year, that would amount to $4 million (U.S.).

In another study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, upwards of 50 per cent of all costs due to infection could be saved by simply having staff adhere to proper hand hygiene. Even more interesting: If visitors and the public did the same, the savings could reach upwards of 90 per cent.

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For most of us, these numbers may seem surreal. Yet when brought down to an individual level, the savings are substantial. Granted, with universal health care and supplementary insurance, the costs of seeing a doctor and filling out a prescription may not seem overbearing to Canadians. But take into consideration time lost due to sick days, the general feeling of frustration fighting off an infection, and the overall emotional toll of illness and it's easy to see how these pathogens can leave anyone weary. By taking those 15 seconds, you can reduce this burden significantly.

So, how often is enough? The practice should be done about a dozen times a day, if not more. The obvious moments are before you eat, after you've used the bathroom, after you've handled raw meats, any time hands get visibly dirty, and right before bed. But on top of that, consider making time for those 15 seconds at less obvious moments.

When you change environments, such as returning home from being outdoors, wash those hands to keep the home safe. If you're at the grocery store, use some sanitizer after you've finished with the notoriously germy carts. If you've been to a place with high traffic, such as the mall or a concert, give those hands the benefit of knowing the shared experience won't end up in sharing illness. Finally, for those romantic types out there, take a few seconds to clean those hands while you find something more comfortable to wear to ensure you and your partner enjoy the evening without any unwanted visitors.

In human relationships, we know there are people who are beneficial to our lives and then there are those who can really hurt us. To stay happy and safe, we tend to choose to be around the good people and hope we can stave off the bad ones. The same rule applies in our relationship with germs.

Jason Tetro is a Toronto-based microbiologist with over 25 years experience in research. He is a self-described germs relationship therapist and strives to improve humanity's bond with the unseen world. He writes for national and international media outlets and is often found on social media where he shares his unique views on microbial health. His science bestseller, The Germ Code is out now. You can follow him on Twitter at @JATetro

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