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Verify: Is hand sanitizer just as effective as hand washing?

Experts encourage preventive measures to protect against the spread of germs this flu season.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- This is not just flu season, it's also the start of the peak time for stomach illnesses. That's why doctors and health experts are reminding everyone to wash their hands.

But unless people are using soap and warm water to wash their hands, it may not be enough to kill the virus or prevent illnesses from spreading. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), alcohol-based hand sanitizer can kill some germs, like cold and flu viruses. And that's only when it when used correctly. To correctly use hand sanitizer, experts recommend using the correct amount of product as directed on the bottle. Apply the sanitizer all over your hands and fingers and allow time for it to dry. 

But hand sanitizer does not prevent all germs, including Norovirus, which is the common and very contagious stomach bug. 

"Soap and water are more effective at getting rid of that than hand sanitizer," says Brian Hartl, an epidemiology supervisor at the Kent County Health Department. "A lot of it has to do with how people are using it and sometimes what you're doing when you have the Norovirus on your hands is simply spreading it around."

But getting the flu shot prevents all forms of the flu, right?

RELATED: Yes or no? The great flu shot debate

RELATED: Spectrum Health doctor debunks flu shot misconceptions

That's false.

"They're effective, but the thing about the flu is that its sneaky and it changes a lot," says Harlt. "And there are different viruses that are circulating that cause body aches and fever and cough and things like that. Vomiting and diarrhea, while influenza can cause that, is not as common. It's more likely that you have the Norovirus."

It's also false to believe that using hand sanitizer is as effective as washing your hands with soap and warm water to prevent the spread of germs.

Experts agree that the best measure is to wash your hand with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds.  

But, if you absolutely cannot get to a sink, use hand sanitizer. Just make sure it contains at least 60 percent alcohol.

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