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From: Household healthcare – Footsteps 74

The importance of health care at the household level

Preventing illnesses and accidents from happening is as important as being able to treat them when they occur. The expertise of professional health workers or hospital treatment may be required to treat a serious illness, but prevention has to begin in the home. There are many simple ways to help your family to stay healthy.

People will get better from many common sicknesses by themselves, without any need for medicines. To help fight off or overcome a sickness, often all that is needed is good hygiene, plenty of rest, good nutrition and enough safe water. Many illnesses are caused by poor hygiene, and can be prevented by making sure water is safe to drink, by ensuring everybody washes their hands and by taking care over preparing and storing food.

Washing hands

Rinsing hands with water alone is not enough for good hygiene and to prevent disease. Both hands should be rubbed with soap or ash and rinsed with running water to wash the germs away. Hands should be washed frequently, especially after going to the toilet and before eating.

Preparing food


Photo: Geoff Crawford

Photo: Geoff Crawford

Making sure that everyone in the family has enough to eat, and that the food is nutritious (Footsteps 65), is vital to maintain good health. 

The way that food is stored and prepared is also important to prevent sickness.

Safe water

Safe water is vital for health. One way to ensure water is safe to drink is to boil it. Boiling water will kill the germs that cause diarrhoea, and make the water safe. If fuel is scarce, it is possible to purify water by using sunlight (Footsteps 51 and

Once water has been treated it must be kept clean. If water for drinking is stored, make sure the containers are clean and covered by lids to keep out flies and dust. Do not put your hands in the water but use a clean, long-handled cup or ladle to take the water out of the container to drink.

Preventing injuries

Try to prevent injuries from occurring.

Preventing infection

Good hygiene and sanitation practices in the home will help prevent infection. For ideas about community sanitation see Footsteps 73.

Article compiled by Maggie Sandilands using information from Where There Is No Doctor (2007 Revised Edition), by David Werner with Carol Thuman and Jane Maxwell, published by Hesperian. See Resources for details about how to order.

Home remedies

All over the world, people use different traditional cures. For many sicknesses, home remedies work as well as modern medicine, or even better. For example, many of the herbal teas that people use to treat coughs and colds or diarrhoea do more good and cause fewer problems than cough syrups and strong medicines that some doctors prescribe. Tea made from Neem tree bark will help bring fever down and stop pain. Neem seed oil applied to the body helps to keep mosquitoes away.

However, other home remedies are less effective and some may be harmful. Only use remedies if you are sure they are safe and know exactly how to use them.

Most serious sicknesses like pneumonia, tetanus, typhoid, tuberculosis, appendicitis, sexually transmitted infections, and fever after childbirth, should be treated with modern medicine as soon as possible. 

When to seek medical help

Many illnesses and injuries can be treated in the home by a well-informed caregiver. However, there is a risk of missing something serious, or making a mistake and giving the wrong treatment, which could make the sick person worse. It is important to recognise when to seek medical help. If in doubt, or if the sick person’s condition does not improve or gets worse, seek help.

A person who has one or more of the following signs is probably too sick to be treated at home without skilled medical help. Their life may be in danger. Seek medical help as soon as possible.

Pregnant women should plan ahead in case there are complications with the birth. Think about the place of delivery and if this is at home, consider in advance arrangements for transport to a health centre in an emergency.

Adapted from Where There Is No Doctor (2007 Revised Edition), by David Werner with Carol Thuman and Jane Maxwell, published by Hesperian.

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