View Full Version : 6 Germy Places: Where Bacteria and Viruses Lurk

The Informer
30th April 2011, 09:33 PM
You’re not being paranoid – there are disease-causing bacteria and viruses on just about every surface you touch: at the office, supermarket, gym, even your own home! But if you avoid coming into contact with germy objects and get smart about cleaning, you can reduce your risk of getting the flu virus or something more serious. Read on to find out which surfaces are most likely to make you sick…

Cold and flu season may be winding down, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get sick. Disease-causing germs exist on most surfaces and objects you come in contact with daily, from doorknobs and desks to your kitchen sink.

The worst offenders may surprise you. For example, the handle of an ordinary supermarket shopping cart could be germier than a Porta-Potty, according to research by Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a germ expert and professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona (UA).

The wrong germ could leave you with more than a few sniffles. You may be exposed to viruses that can lodge in your lungs (respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV) or gastrointestinal tract (norovirus). There are also bacteria that can make you violently sick to your stomach (E. coli and salmonella) or give you a nasty skin or throat infection (staphylococcus or streptococcus).

It’s enough to turn anyone into a first-class germaphobe.

“These organisms survive longer than you might think,” warns Peter Iwen, Ph.D., a professor of pathology and microbiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. “Most bacteria can live on surfaces for at least a week, and in some cases, up to months. And most viruses can survive on surfaces for hours to days.”

The problems start when these disease-causing bacteria and viruses are transferred from public objects to our skin. The first point of contact is usually the hands – they initially expose us to germs 86% of the time, according to a 2005 UA study co-written by Gerba.

Then, if you rub your eyes or touch your mouth or an open sore, the germs get into your body. But that doesn’t mean they’ll make you sick. It depends on your immune system's strength, personal hygiene, how well a surface transmits germs, and how infectious and hardy those germs are.

The key to staying healthy is learning where germs thrive and taking the right steps to protect yourself. Here’s how:

1. Your Kitchen
The germiest room in your house isn’t the bathroom – it’s the kitchen.

Sponges, dishrags, the sink drain area, faucet knobs and refrigerator handle are heavily contaminated with bacteria – most likely from raw meat, poultry or vegetables – that could make you seriously ill, a series of UA studies found.

The kitchen floor can harbor molds and fecal bacteria tracked in on the bottom of your family’s shoes, says Gerba, co-author of The Germ Freak’s Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu (Health Communications).

Your best defense: Use paper towels and an antibacterial cleanser to wipe up spills, and choose an antimicrobial sponge to clean plates and cookware.

If you use cellulose sponges, kill any lingering germs by running them through the dishwasher or heating them in the microwave for two minutes while still damp every few days, Gerba suggests.

Mop the floor once or twice a week with disinfectant cleaner and put a blanket down before your kids sit on the floor. And forget about the “5-second rule” – dropped food can pick up germs more quickly than that, Gerba warns.

To minimize the spread of disease-causing food-borne bugs (such as E. coli and salmonella), defrost frozen meats or poultry only in the fridge or microwave, not in the sink or on a countertop. And use different plastic cutting boards for meats and vegetables, then clean them in the dishwasher after each use. To remember which cutting board is used for what types of food, buy boards in different colors or styles.

“About one-quarter of purses have fecal bacteria on the bottom because women often put them on the floor in public places,” Gerba says.

Wherever you leave it, regularly wipe off the bottom using a disinfectant and paper towel.

2. Public Restrooms
A wet toilet seat may make you cringe, but it’s actually the least of your concerns in the ladies’ room, Gerba says. Prime hangouts for bacteria and viruses – such as hepatitis A, E. coli, salmonella, shigella and the Norwalk virus – include the floor, sink, faucet knobs and sanitary napkin dispenser.

Another surprising source of rest-room germs: air dryers. They increased the levels of bacteria on users’ hands after washing by 42%-194%, a 2008 study at London’s University of Westminster found. By contrast, paper towels cut bacteria levels by 51%-76%.

Your best defense: When washing your hands, use a paper towel to turn the faucet on and off. In between, lather your hands with soap for 20 seconds before rinsing.

Before you exit, grab a fresh paper towel and use it to open the door, so you don’t have to touch the handle and pick up germs from all those people who didn’t wash their hands.

3. Work
Your office workspace could be more hazardous than a sick co-worker, Gerba says.

“It’s pretty much what you touch, not who you touch” that could transmit bacteria and viruses and leave you with a cold, flu or gastrointestinal illness, complete with diarrhea and vomiting, he says.

A phone receiver is the most germ-laden spot in the workplace, typically harboring 25,000 germs per square inch.

But thanks to all the food consumed at your desk, desktops and computers are close behind, UA research found. Some desktops sport almost 21,000 disease-causing germs per square inch. Your keyboard could have 3,300, and your mouse 1,700.

Compare that to the relatively sanitary office toilet seat – it has just 49 germs per square inch.

The reason: Cleaning staffs often don’t disinfect work or equipment surfaces in offices, Gerba says, because they’re considered private property.

Your best defense: To avoid turning your desk into a bacteria cafeteria, eat elsewhere.

And don’t dust workspace surfaces with a damp paper towel.

“That just spreads the germs around,” Gerba notes.

Instead, use a disinfectant and paper towels to clean your desk and a gentle disinfecting wipe to sanitize the keyboard, mouse and phone.

A final tip: After using the office copier or pushing an elevator button, use a hand sanitizer. Or save yourself that step by using your knuckle or elbow to press the buttons, Gerba suggests.

4. Airplanes
Most of us caught a cold after a plane flight. After all, “if people are coughing or sneezing, an illness can easily be transmitted to other people within the cabin,” Iwen says.

It's not surprising that contagious diseases – from the flu and measles to tuberculosis and SARS – get transmitted during air travel. Almost 73% of passengers said they wouldn’t postpone a flight because of the flu, according to a 2009 poll by the Consumer Travel Alliance.

Surfaces inside airplanes also could make you sick, specifically your airline seat and the restrooms.

“There are no rules and regulations about disinfecting restrooms or [seat-back] trays between flights,” Gerba says. “We’re talking about 50 people per toilet – which can make airplane restrooms just about the germiest place ever.”

Your best defense: Pack a carry-on bottle of hand sanitizer (no larger than 3.4 ounces, so you’ll get it through airport security) and a package of disinfectant wipes.

When you sit down, use one wipe to clean the armrests and tray table, Gerba says. Use the hand sanitizer after using the restroom.

And say “no, thanks” to reusable airline pillows or blankets, which could still be contaminated with the germs of previous passengers. Instead, pack a wrap and your own inflatable pillow or neck rest.

5. Grocery Stores
Considering the amount of hands on shopping carts, it’s no surprise that they play host to bacterial menaces such as salmonella, E. coli, and others. But just how dangerous they are might shock you: Half were found to be contaminated with salmonella, according to UA studies.

When you reach the checkout line, you’re still not out of the woods: The touch-screen and stylus pen you use to pay with a credit or debit card can harbor bacteria and viruses that cause colds, flu, RSV, norovirus, rotovirus and staph, Iwen warns.

Your best defense: Use disinfecting wipes to clean the germs from grocery cart handles – many stores now provide these at the entrance. Don’t sample foods without washing your hands first. And use a hand sanitizer or wash your hands after you leave the store.

When you use a stylus, smear on hand sanitizer afterward, rubbing it over the entire surface of your hands – including between your fingers.

If you’re asked to use a pen to sign a printed credit-card bill, use your own instead, advises Neil Schachter, M.D., a professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and author of The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds & Flu (Harper).

But weight machines, free weights, cardio machines and yoga mats are just as dangerous. They come into contact with countless hands and warm, sweaty bodies each day, which encourages the transmission of colds, flu and skin infections.

Bacteria are present on exercise equipment, but the greater risk is from viruses, according to a 2006 study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. It found that 63% of gym equipment was contaminated with them, mostly rhinoviruses that can cause colds.

Your best defense: Use a disinfectant wipe to clean germs off exercise equipment before you use it.

During your workout, avoid touching your eyes, mouth or nose with your hands. Keep a clean towel with you and use that instead. Afterward, use a hand sanitizer or wash your hands with soap and water.

If you have any open wounds, cuts or sores, cover them with bandages to lower your chances of getting staph or another infection from exercise equipment, Iwen says.

Is Your Hygiene Heinous?
When it comes to your hygiene habits, would those who know you praise your penchant for cleanliness or cry foul over your questionable ways? Good hygiene cannot be underestimated - your health, not to mention reputation, depends on it. Find out where your habits rank on the hygiene meter.

Source: Lifescript