Hygiene Poverty and Its Impact on Infection Control and Prevention

by Erica Mitchell | February 23 2024 | Infection Control, Consumer, HAIs, Cleaning Regimens, Health & Wellness, Children, Equity, Public Health, Outpatient | 0 Comments

hygiene poverty-01Access to clean water, soap, and basic cleaning products may seem like a given in our nation, leading many of us to overlook the impact poverty can have on hygiene. In the United States alone, the statistics are staggering: 33% of low-income households report bathing without soap when they can't afford it, 32% report reusing diapers, and 74% skip doing laundry or dishes to save on supplies. It can seem that hygiene products are not as great a priority as nutrition, shelter, or clothing, but hygiene has a direct impact on health, especially for those struggling with a chronic condition or patients receiving "hospital at home" care. In this blog post, we will explore this concept of "hygiene poverty," its consequences, and the urgent need for collective action.

Understanding Hygiene Poverty

Hygiene poverty refers to the inability to access or afford basic hygiene products necessary for maintaining cleanliness and good health. It's a multifaceted issue intertwined with socioeconomic factors such as poverty, homelessness, and inequality. For many individuals and families living paycheck to paycheck or facing financial hardship, prioritizing hygiene products often means sacrificing other essentials like food or utilities.

Consider the financial strain of purchasing cleaning supplies: SNAP, or "food stamps," cannot be used on hygiene supplies including shampoo, detergent, disinfectants, or menstrual products, and these same supplies are amongst the most expensive by weight, even when purchased at a discount/dollar store. To cope, low-income families use less of their products in order to stretch them out, skip washing adult clothing in favor of washing children's clothing, delay changing diapers, and reuse paper products.

The Impact on Infection Control and Prevention

Hygiene poverty has immediate impacts on the social and professional lives of low-income families, where social stigma, discrimination, and acceptance can be impacted by sub-optimal hygiene. However, hygiene poverty has real health and medical consequences as well. 

At a household level, hygiene poverty can lead to easier spread of infection and illness, which could otherwise be avoided by using tissues, washing hands, and disinfecting surfaces. If a family member is immuno-compromised (for example, due to diabetes or a heart condition, which are also associated with low-income status), those infections can lead to dangerous complications. 

When receiving medical care, individuals and families struggling with hygiene poverty may be unable to provide the necessary conditions for a patient to recover safely at home, leading to readmissions or extended hospital stays. In an effort to reduce healthcare-associated infections and to free up beds for acute cases, today's hospitals have rolled out initiatives to enable patients to receive home care. However, for some low-income families, this may not even be possible, or may put the patient at greater risk than if they just stayed at the hospital. Hospitals, in this scenario, will see a cohort of patients who are more medically fragile and susceptible to infection. To meet these more vulnerable patients, hospitals will need to invest in sustainable, effective interventions to prevent infections, such as biocidal surfaces that continuously kill pathogens before they can reach patients.

Addressing the Crisis

To combat hygiene poverty and its repercussions on infection control and prevention, concerted efforts are needed at various levels:

  1. Policy and Advocacy: Governments and policymakers must prioritize hygiene by subsidizing essential hygiene items, establishing hygiene banks, and improving access to public restrooms and sanitation infrastructure.

  2. Community Support: . Collaboration between community organizations, charities, and businesses can amplify efforts to address hygiene poverty and its root causes.

  3. Education and Awareness: Promoting hygiene education that focuses on preventing infections is vital, in addition to more specific information about home health-care.

  4. Corporate Responsibility: Companies in the hygiene and healthcare sectors have a responsibility to contribute to solutions addressing hygiene poverty. This can involve donating products, implementing sustainable business practices, and supporting initiatives that promote hygiene equity.

Hygiene poverty is not just a matter of personal inconvenience; it's a systemic issue with far-reaching implications for public health. By acknowledging the root causes of hygiene poverty and taking concrete steps to address them, we can create a world where everyone has access to the basic hygiene resources they need to lead healthy lives, and in the event of illness, what they need to recover safely.

How do you encounter issues surrounding hygiene poverty in your daily life? Share your thoughts in the comments below.