5 Places Germs Lurk
Think about all the places you visit in a typical week: your grocery store, your favorite restaurant, your office. Do you ever look around and worry your surroundings are less than sparkling clean?
Listed are five places where poor hygiene could give germs a leg up. For a closer look at this, public health officials were asked to discuss the risks in each place, along with strategies for protecting yourself and your family.
Germy Place No. 1: Public Bathrooms
The risk: "It's prudent to assume virtually any surface in a public restroom carries germs," says Craig Conover, MD, MPH, medical director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. These germs may include intestinal bacteria, such as E. coli and Enterococcus, which cause diarrhea. The main risk of infection comes not from sitting on the toilet, but from touching the seat, stall door or sink with your hands and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth -- the usual points of entry for common germs.
Your defense: "If you want to leave with clean hands," Conover advises, "wash your hands for the proper amount of time -- 15 to 20 seconds -- and avoid touching contaminated surfaces afterward." If the sink is not motion-activated, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet so you won't contaminate the hands you just washed.
Germy Place No. 2: Restaurants
The risk: We've all seen the signs requiring restaurant employees to wash their hands after using the bathroom, but who's checking up on this? Improperly washed hands can easily taint food with fecal matter, introducing infectious bacteria or viruses.
Raw foods can also expose you to a wide range of bacteria, including Salmonella, Shigella, and Campylobacter, Archibald says. Even ordering your food well done is not a guarantee against exposure. If a kitchen worker handles raw foods and then touches your dinner plate or freshly baked rolls, he can contaminate your cooked food.
Your defense: "Choose which restaurants you patronize," Conover says. Check with your local government for inspection results or look for the inspection certificate on site. In addition, avoid raw or undercooked foods. Always order your hamburger well done and send it back if it's pink in the middle.
Germy Place No. 3: Your Workplace
The risk: Phones, desks, and computer keyboards are germ magnets, according to a study by University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD. The study, funded by the Clorox Company, suggests surfaces used by teachers, accountants, and bankers are the germiest.
Your defense: Moser recommends disinfecting your workspace yourself, particularly if you share your desk, computer, or phone with other employees. One option is to coat surfaces with a disinfectant spray, "but don't wipe it off. You have to let it dry."
Germy Place No. 4: Movie Theaters
The risk: Similar to an airplane, movie theaters draw many people into close quarters for a couple of hours. Moser points out that viral infections can be contagious a day before symptoms appear, so people with colds or flu may go to the movies without knowing they are sick.
Your defense: Avoid touching your eyes or nose during the movie and wash your hands after leaving the theater. To protect others, watch movies at home when you are ill.
Germy Place No. 5: Your Home
The risk: You don't have to leave home to have a close encounter with germs -- just travel as far as your kitchen or bathroom. According to Moser, raw foods frequently contaminate kitchen surfaces with bacteria, which aren't killed when you wipe off the counter with a wet cloth or sponge. As for the bathroom, intestinal pathogens can contaminate the toilet seat, flush handle, towels, doorknobs, sink, and other surfaces you might touch after using the toilet.
Your defense: Keep in mind that cleaning is not the same as disinfection, Moser says. His advice:
- Clean kitchens and bathrooms regularly with bleach or a color-safe disinfectant spray.
- After handling raw foods, wash cutting boards and knives with soap and hot water.
- Microwave wet sponges for one minute to kill germs.
- Change hand-drying towels often.
- Close the lid before flushing the toilet to keep germs from contaminating nearby surfaces.
Your defense: Set a good example by washing your hands often at home, Moser suggests. Teach kids why it's important to wash hands after using the bathroom or before eating meals, and show them how to do it properly.
The Universal Germ Fighter
All of our experts stress that there is one simple strategy for fighting germs in almost any setting: Wash your hands. "Do it often and do it correctly," Moser says. "That can't be overemphasized."
Source: Adapted from WebMD, 2014.