Washing your hands and covering your mouth when you cough "makes a huge difference" in reducing transmission of the flu.

Barack Obama on Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 in a press conference

Studies show handwashing reduces disease

President Barack Obama was asked about swine flu at a prime-time news conference marking his first 100 days in office. The reporter wanted to know if Obama would consider quarantines or closing the border with Mexico, where the flu appears to have started.

Obama said his health advisers were not recommending closing the border.

"But the most important thing right now that public health officials have indicated is that we treat this the same way that we would treat other flu outbreaks, just understanding that because this is a new strain, we don't yet know how it will respond to that," Obama said.

"So wash your hands when you shake hands. Cover your mouth when you cough. I know it sounds trivial, but it makes a huge difference," Obama said. "If you are sick, stay home. If your child is sick, keep them out of school. If you are feeling certain flu symptoms, don't get on an airplane, don't get on any system of public transportation where you're confined and you could potentially spread the virus."

We wondered about hand-washing and covering your mouth when you cough. Have our mothers been right all these years?

Indeed, Obama's remarks mirror the advice from the Centers for Disease Control almost perfectly.

When it comes to preventing the flu, the CDC recommends the following:

• Avoid close contact.

• Stay home when you are sick.

• Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.

• Clean your hands.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

• Practice good health habits, like getting lots of sleep, getting exercise, and eating nutritious food.

We also found numerous independent scientific studies that found handwashing significantly reduced the transmission of disease, including the MRSA bacteria and the flu.

The University of Michigan School of Public Health is in the midst of a two-year study examining whether face masks and handwashing can reduce the transmission of the flu. The study tracked the spread of flu among college students in university dorms, and used a control group to compare outcomes.

Initial results indicate that face masks and hand sanitizing reduced the transmission rate of the flu by as much as 50 percent.

But knowing you should wash your hands and doing it are two different things. And putting your hands under the faucet for three seconds and then wiping them on your slacks doesn't count.

Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, has been trying to raise awareness of the importance of handwashing in hospitals. Studies show that doctors and health care workers wash their hands only about half the time they should before examining patients, said Lisa McGiffert, the director of the group's "Stop Hospital Infections" campaign.

"Some people think that this is such a simple thing that it couldn't make a difference. But it does," McGiffert said. "This is what the experts have been trying to get health care workers and doctors to do for decades, and it does make it difference."

Hand sanitizers are a good substitute for handwashing, and coughing into your arm is better than coughing into your hand, she said. To make sure you've washed your hands thoroughly, sing Happy Birthday (silently, please). When the song is over, you've washed long enough. And regular soap works just fine.

Obama said that handwashing and covering your mouth when you cough can make a huge difference. The scientific consensus on handwashing backs him up. We rate his statement True.