7 Things That Can Happen If You Don’t Wash Your Hands

Updated: Mar. 30, 2022

Handwashing is a simple act that you (hopefully!) do many times a day, but it's even more important than you think

Reasons to wash your hands

We already had plenty of good reasons to frequently and thoroughly wash our hands—and then we hit a whole new level of importance due to the spread of the novel coronavirus. Washing your hands is one of the ways to protect yourself and others from getting sick. If that’s not enough to convince you to wash your hands, here are some other things that could happen if you don’t.

Female hand pour cough syrup in a measuring cup on a light background. The concept of health.
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You can get a serious respiratory illness

What your mother always said is true: If you don’t wash your hands, you’re going to get sick. You can get the common cold, yes, but the risks are much more severe than that. Covid-19, the flu, pneumonia, adenovirus, and even hand, foot, and mouth disease are all respiratory illnesses you can develop from neglecting to wash your hands, according to the CDC. Good handwashing practices can cut the number of colds and respiratory illnesses you contract by 16 to 21 percent—that’s why handwashing is one of the 20 secrets from people who never get sick.

Close-up roll toilet paper in restroom with hand pulling
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You can get diarrhea

Diarrhea-related illnesses can strike easily in people who don’t wash their hands. Tanya McIntosh, an infection-control practitioner and registered nurse at the University of Kansas Medical Center, says, “Handwashing after you go to the bathroom is another key time to perform hand hygiene. Bacteria and viruses from feces (poop) can cause various diarrhea-related illnesses, including salmonella, norovirus, and E. coli 0157.” The CDC reports that the simple act of handwashing reduces the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 31 percent.

Black woman cooking in the kitchen

You can get (and give) food poisoning

Another time when handwashing plays a key role in avoiding illness? When you’re cooking. McIntosh cites frequent washing as essential to preventing cross-contamination. “Foods such as raw meat, vegetables with dirt on them, or eggs can harbor potentially harmful bacteria that can make you sick if not handled correctly,” she says. (Don’t fall for these food poisoning myths.)

A hand trying to open the door by holding the doorknob with a white copy space on the door.

You can infect other people

Remember, your hands are touching pretty much everything around you throughout the day. This means that when you touch a doorknob after touching your eyes, mouth, nose, or face, you’re putting whoever touches it after you at risk of picking up your germs. And likewise, when you touch that doorknob, you’re also picking up the germs of everyone who touched it before you. If that creeps you out, wait until you see the 15 everyday items that are dirtier than a toilet seat.

Father holding his baby girl at home

You could be putting people with weak immune systems at risk

According to anesthesiologist Christian Whitney, DO, a pain management consultant for Restorative Pain Solutions, “The risk of not washing your hands is that you could get exposed to potentially harmful infections and also infect others, especially young infants, the elderly, and those that are immunocompromised and susceptible to infections.” This is especially crucial when trying to do your part in flattening the Covid-19 curve. By not washing your hands after going to the bathroom, or touching potentially contaminated foods, you can create huge complications for those around you who have weaker immune systems. Minimize the risk by being vigilant about washing your hands.

Close up of chef washing his hands in commercial kitchen. Man washing hands in a sink with tap water.
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You could be contributing to antibiotic resistance

Handwashing is the most important step in not catching an infection in the first place, so doing it regularly can reduce the number of infections that are spread—infections that are often treated with antibiotics. The CDC reports that handwashing can prevent about one-third of diarrhea-related illnesses and about one-fifth of respiratory infections. It can also reduce—by almost 60 percent—the spread of diarrhea-related illnesses in people with weakened immune systems. Fewer infections mean less widespread antibiotic treatment, and the overuse of antibiotics is the leading cause of antibiotic resistance. Washing your hands can also prevent the spread of difficult-to-treat illnesses from germs that have already become resistant to antibiotics.

Father and son using wash hand sanitizer gel pump dispenser.
Elizaveta Galitckaia/Shutterstock

You could be relying on hand sanitizer too much

Hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes are surely beneficial in a pinch, but they shouldn’t be your go-to. According to Dr. Whitney, it’s not just the soap that kills the pathogens on your hands. “The additional mechanical action of lathering and the friction of rubbing your hands together and washing away the germs and debris is what makes handwashing more effective,” he says. “However, handwashing needs to be done properly, which means lathering with enough soap and scrubbing for at least 20 seconds.” If this convinced you to go wash your hands, just make sure you’re not making these handwashing mistakes.