Bacteria and viruses are everywhere--so many of them in so many places that it’s a wonder we don’t get sick more often. The germs in question aren’t just the ones that cause colds and flu, but also nastier ones that can trigger staph infections, pneumonia and GI illnesses. And long after an infected person leaves the area, pathogens can linger on contaminated surfaces, surviving for several days. Here’s a guide to germ hotspots and how to protect yourself:
The supermarket: Beware of those shopping cart handles! And the child seat: just think of what can leak out of diapers. No one disinfects shopping carts so they’re a breeding ground for whatever ails the customers who pushed them around before you.
At work: Your desk at work could have 400 times more germs than a toilet seat. What’s more, thousands of bacteria can coat your phone. When’s the last time you disinfected your computer keyboard or cleaned the crumbs out of your desk drawers (a feast for germs)? Also be wary of control buttons on the office copier or fax machine, elevator buttons, handles of shared coffee cups and pots, and other communal items.
In the kitchen: Sure, you disinfect countertops and cutting boards after readying raw meat or chicken (even raw veggies and fruit) for cooking. But who knew that it’s also important to clean all the other stuff you might handle in the process: microwave controls, salt and pepper shakers, jars of spices and herbs.
Public restrooms: Studies have shown that sinks and faucets harbor far more bugs than toilet seats. A study at Johns Hopkins found that water from hands-free faucets is actually dirtier than water from manual ones (researchers suggested that the complex valve systems may promote more bacterial growth, but didn’t test the handles of the manual faucets for germs).
Restaurants: We all hope that employees obey the signs and always wash their hands before leaving the restroom, but no one checks on them. Then there’s the rag or sponge used to clean the table before you sit down. But think about less obvious threats: germs can roost on the menus (who disinfects a menu?) and the lemon in your soft drink or iced tea: a study published in Environmental Health in 2007 found that nearly 70 percent of the lemon wedges tested at 21 restaurants contained e. coli and more than 20 other pathogens.
A final caution: don’t waste money on hand sanitizers that claim to protect against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), the H1N1 flu virus, Salmonella or E. coli. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any such consumer products. Your best bet: wash your hands with soap and water frequently, for 30 seconds per washing. Or, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol concentration). Sanitizers kill most harmful bacteria and viruses, and don’t contribute to antibiotic resistance.