Are the adults in your life--your mom and dad, your grandparents, your teachers--always reminding you to wash your hands? While you may find the constant reminders annoying, you should be aware that these adults are offering you important instruction for protecting your health.

Even the government is getting into the act.

"Hand washing is the single most important means of preventing the spread of infection," says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the government agency responsible for keeping track of diseases in this country.

Not only is it important to wash your hands. It's also important to do it the right way. These tips come from the "Good Health Is in Your Hands" project, a two-year public service campaign conducted by the Massachusetts Medical Society:

* Turn on the water and use a generous amount of soap.

* Lather soap and scrub for at least 15 seconds.

* Be sure to wash your wrists and in between fingers.

* Rinse soap off your hands.

* Dry your hands with a paper towel or hand towel.

* Turn off the faucet with a towel.

Experts say you should always remember to wash your hands before eating, after using the bathroom, after playing outside, after handling pets, and before and after touching someone who is sick.

Even when your hands seem clean to you, they are often coated with germs. Many studies have shown that hand washing definitely reduces the transmission of colds, which are caused by germs called rhinoviruses.

If you have not been doing a good job of washing your hands or avoiding it altogether, you're not alone. In a 1995 study, researchers discovered that while nearly everyone says they wash their hands after using the bathroom, many people do not.

The researchers reported that when they surveyed people by telephone, asking them if they wash their hands after going to the bathroom, 94 percent said they always do. But observation of 6,333 people in five major cities found only 68 percent actually do so.

Why is hand washing such a big deal? Because it is one of the most effective ways to prevent spreading germs, including cold viruses and bacteria that cause diarrhea. In other words, hand washing helps keep you healthy.

Joann Niffenegger, a professor at Purdue University in Indiana, conducted a hand washing study of children and teachers at day care centers. She found that a test group of 3- to 5-year-olds who used proper and frequent hand washing techniques caught fewer colds.

Of course, it's not just kids who are susceptible to colds. U.S. Navy doctors at a hospital in the Great Lakes noticed that during boot camp, when recruits share common living space most of the time, many reported to the hospital with colds. They usually turned up during their first eight weeks at camp. So doctors started a campaign called "Operation Stop Cough: Washing Up to Keep Colds Down." Recruits and their division commanders were encouraged to wash their hands at least five times a day. They found that recruits who washed up more had fewer colds. Since the introduction of Operation Stop Cough, the number of patients with upper respiratory infections has gone down by more than half.

Why not start your own "Operation Stop Cough" at home and school this year?

Tips for Parents

Rhinoviruses can survive up to three hours outside the nasal passages on inanimate objects and skin. To help prevent them from infecting your children (and yourself):

* Wash hands frequently.

* Avoid close contact with anyone suffering from a cold.

* Keep kitchen and bathroom counter tops clean.

* Discard used tissues right away.

For more information on colds, flu and allergies, contact the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIAID Office of Communications and Public Liaison, Building 31, Room 7A-50, 31 Center Drive MSC 2520, Bethesda, MD 20892-2520, or visit the Web site www.niaid.nih.gov.

For You to Do

Public health officials require restaurant workers to wash their hands after they use the bathroom. You have probably noticed signs in restaurant restrooms reminding workers to wash up. Some signs are simple; they just say, "Employees must wash hands before returning to work." Others have illustrations. Make a hand washing reminder sign for your own bathroom. Then draw a picture that will remind your family about this important habit for staying healthy.