When it comes to germs, looks are deceiving. A surface can seem clean and yet still be covered with the nasty little micro-organisms that spread infections. Eighty percent of all infections are spread the same way: Someone comes into contact with a surface that’s teeming with germs (which, by the way, come in a number of unpleasant varieties, including bacterial, viral, and fungal). And with the flu season upon us, it’s even more important that we get serious about encountering as few germs as possible.
But now for the bad news: “No surface is not germy,” says Michael Bell, M.D. associate director for infection control at the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC). As a basic way to reduce the risk from germs, the CDC recommends frequent hand washing—the serious kind with soap, hot water, and ten to fifteen seconds of scrubbing (just sing Happy Birthday and the time will go by in a flash). But there are also specific steps you can take to avoid getting infected in hot spots both inside and outside your home. You probably know about some of these places, but others are likely to be a surprise:
1. The Kitchen
Eileen Abruzzo, director of infection control at Long Island College Hospital, in Brooklyn, NY, says that your kitchen sink may be a lot germier than your toilet. Another culprit: your kitchen sponge. Everything you think you’re washing away stays—and multiplies.
So use paper towels to clean up in the kitchen. A dirty dish rag or sponge will just spread germs around. As for the sink, it needs disinfecting once a week. Make a solution of about a tablespoon of bleach to a quart of water and you’ve got a really effective germ killer. Use it to wipe the sink out and clean off chopping boards. Rinse with plain water to make sure there’s no trace of bleach left. Dry the sink with paper towels after you wipe it out.
If you insist on using a sponge, soak it in the solution at least once a day—or nuke it for a minute in your microwave. Use a disinfectant spray to wipe off the faucet (including the metal aeration screen –it’s a germ gathering place). “And don’t forget the garbage disposal or anything else that you touch with your hands,” says Dr. Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
As for the average cutting board, Gerba, who’s often called Dr. Germ, says it “has about 200 percent more fecal bacteria than the average toilet seat.” He recommends using separate boards for meat and vegetables and cleaning the boards after use with a disinfectant spray or a bleach solution. Next, make it a point to disinfect your microwave, cupboards, and refrigerator, especially the rubber lining inside, each week.
2. The Bathroom (at Home and Away)
You probably clean the toilet bowl regularly. But how about the faucets, shower head, or toilet paper dispenser? Microbiologists have found more germs in those locations than on the toilet seat. The same goes for the bathtub. One study, by Elizabeth Scott, Ph.D., a microbiologist at Simmons College in Boston, found staphylococcus bacteria—which can cause skin infections and, occasionally, pneumonia—in 26 percent of the tubs tested. It should be disinfected at least once a week.
As for toothbrushes, don’t let them touch each other, don’t keep them near the toilet and put the toilet seat down before you flush. Toilet water has a way of flying through the air. Be especially careful when using bathrooms outside your home in, say, a department store or a movie theater. Wash your hands before and after use and don’t touch the knob on either side of the restroom door.
The worst bathrooms of all, though, are on airplanes. Says Gerba, “I used to sample airplane bathrooms a lot, and I always found traces of E.coli, (a bacterium that is transmitted by contact with feces) usually on the faucets and nearly 100 percent of the time on the door handles. Airline bathrooms are rarely disinfected between flights.”
So travel with plenty of disinfectant-based gel sanitizers for surfaces and alcohol-based wipes for your hands. Again, put that toilet seat down when you’re done. When you get back to your seat, use another gel sanitizer. If you don’t mind people staring at you, use disinfectant wipes on the armrests and tray counters.
3. The Laundry Room
“Anytime you transfer underwear from the washer to dryers, you’re going to get E. coli on your hands,” says Gerba. It’s best to wash underwear separately—there’s about a gram of feces in every pair of dirty underpants—and in water that’s at least 150 degrees. Wash your hands after loading the machine and leave the load in the dryer for at least 45 minutes. It’s also a good idea to run an empty load with some bleach in it on a regular basis.
4. Surfaces You Share
Anything that a lot of people touch is going to be full of germs. That includes shopping carts (many supermarkets now provide disinfecting wipes), ATM buttons, health club equipment, computer keyboards, door handles in public places (like your hotel room), your desk, the office copier and the office coffee pot, not to mention the communal candy dish.
Be especially careful in hotels. Use a disinfectant wipe on the remote, the handle for the mini-bar, clock radio, phone, light switches, and those plastic cards advertising hotel services. (If you share similar items, especially a phone, in the office, get out the wipes.)
5. Kid Stuff
Schools are germ breeding ground for kids—that’s why 22 million school days are lost to colds every year. The list of places that might transmit germs from child to child is endless: Public water fountains (from 62,000 to 2.7 million bacteria per spigot), playground equipment, desks, toys, cafeteria trays and computer keyboards.
Children should be taught to wash their hands before and after lunch, when they go to the bathroom or use a computer or play with a toy. Send them to school with bottled water and teach them how to use antibacterial wipes.
In the end, though, remember that how hard you try, you just can’t eliminate every germ from your life. And the good news is, we’re not vulnerable to all of them. “We take in humongous amounts of live organisms every day,” says Dr. Bell of the CDC. “If they routinely made us ill, none of us would have a chance.”
Don’t forget the wipes, though!