Cold and flu season has begun in earnest. How can you protect yourself as well as short-circuit the chain of infection between you and your friends and family?
Most of us cringe when strangers cough or sneeze near us in public. But hands are the real germ carriers, and our own hands are culprits. As you go about your day, your hands pick up other people’s germs but also deposit germs of their own.
Let’s track where the worst microbes are in the course of a day. Our tour guide? Charles Gerba, often called “Dr. Germ,” a microbiologist at the University of Arizona. Gerba never imagined that microbiology would make him famous, but an Internet search of his name yields more than 10,000 results.
Here are the germs you can encounter as you dress for the day.
Your clothes: You might be surprised to hear that your clothes can harbor salmonella, hepatitis, and other viruses. Gerba found those germs and others can survive our laundry efforts because most Americans don’t wash clothes in hot water or use bleach anymore.
The solution: Use bleach or the hot cycle if you can. If not, run the dryer for more than 30 minutes, which can kill germs.
Time for breakfast, and Gerba says our kitchens harbor far more pathogens than our bathrooms because of our own germs and those on raw meat and produce. The worst hot spots are the kitchen sink, kitchen sponge, and kitchen counters.
The solution: Clean your kitchen sink and counter frequently with disposable disinfectant wipes, especially after handling raw meat or produce. Use paper towels, instead of a sponge, to wipe your counters. Run your sponge through the dishwasher or microwave it for one to two minutes to kill germs.
If you commute via bus or subway you are six times more likely to get sick than if you walk or drive, simply because you are coming into contact with many more people and their germs, Gerba said.
The solution: Use hand sanitizer or wash your hands just after exiting public transit. And make that hand-washing thorough! When I asked Gerba the biggest mistake people make regarding germs, he instantly said: “Not washing their hands long enough or well enough. Our study showed only half the people who went to a sink used soap in a public restroom.”
If you wash your hands thoroughly and then grab your purse or cellphone, you are probably defeating the purpose. Gerba has often swabbed the bottoms of women’s purses and said about a third of them are contaminated with fecal bacteria, probably from being placed on public restroom floors.
Gerba and his team have tested cellphones that contained 100,000 bacteria. And because they are our constant companions — at the table, on the toilet, etc. — they are uniquely positioned to spread germs. “Viruses are a bit more mobile today than ever before because you’ve got mobile phones,” Gerba said.
The solution: Hang your purse on the bathroom hook rather than placing it on the floor. And never put a purse on your kitchen counter. Wipe your smartphone frequently with an alcohol-free antiseptic wipe. (Alcohol is not good for the screen.)
Restrooms have their risks, but they are not the worst germ centers at your workplace.
The elevator: Buttons are like petri dishes of germs because everybody who uses the elevator ends up touching it. But there’s something even worse.
The break room: “The hot spot we found in office buildings is usually the break room,” Gerba said. “Usually on the coffee pot handle. I mean, you want to be the first one to get the coffee in the morning.” Once again, where there are many people, there are many germs. “We found that viruses were spreading between people who had never met,” he said. “We figured maybe the problem was the restroom, but it was really the break room.” When Gerba and his team deliberately placed a synthetic germ in an office break room, it spread to most every surface in the office within four hours.
The restroom: The toilet seat that we obsess over is actually pretty clean because people wipe it or use paper liners, Gerba said. To improve your chances even more, choose the center stall, which contains fewer germs because fewer people use it. The exit door handle, another source of angst, is also pretty clean, because most people have just washed their hands. The real cesspool in a public restroom is the floor.
The solution: Wash your hands as soon as you get to work after exiting the elevator. Encourage your company to have a professional cleaning service swab down the break room in addition to the restroom. Wash your hands thoroughly after visiting the break room.
Here you may be surprised. The biggest problem area? Menus! Why? Because so many people touch them. Gerba and his assistants found an average of 185,000 bacteria on menus in one test of restaurants in three states. There are probably about a hundred times more bacteria on that menu than on a typical toilet seat, Gerba said. Another potential problem spot: restaurant seats, because staffers wipe down tables but often not the chairs.
The solution: Order your food from the menu and then excuse yourself to the not-so-dirty restroom to wash your hands. Or carry hand sanitizer and use a quick squirt before eating.
Gerba found E. coli bacteria on half of the shopping cart handles he tested. It could have come from shoppers’ hands, their babies’ diapers, or raw meat they put in the carts. Fabric grocery bags may be a bigger risk because they provide germs a direct route from the grocery store to your home. Gerba found that about half of reusable grocery bags were also contaminated with E. coli, which is associated with the fecal matter of animals and humans.
The solution: Ask your grocery store what shopping cart sanitation measures it takes and reward stores that have a plan in place. Don’t eat while you shop. Wash or sanitize your hands after shopping. Place reusable grocery bags on the floor rather than the kitchen counter while unloading. Wash your fabric grocery bags with hot water, bleach or both.
Most people reading about the germs they encounter throughout the day will be disgusted, but a hardy few will scoff and say that being exposed to germs makes you stronger. To that, Gerba deadpanned, “Or it kills you.” After all, pathogens like E. coli and salmonella can be deadly. “Getting sick doesn’t necessarily protect you,” Gerba said. But the advice above will.