Think about all the places you visit in a typical week: your office, your
favorite restaurant, your child's school. Do you ever look around and worry
your surroundings are less than sparkling clean?
Rod Moser, PA, PhD, does. In his WebMDblog, the veteran primary care
physician assistant lists 12 places where poor hygiene could give germs a leg
up. For a closer look at this "dirty dozen," WebMD asked public health
officials to discuss the risks in each place, along with strategies for
protecting yourself and your family.
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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.
Lennox K. Archibald, MD, hospital epidemiologist for Shands HealthCare
affiliated with the University of Florida, tells WebMD healthy people are not
likely to get sick from a public bathroom if they "wash their hands
properly with soap and water." He adds that the elderly, people undergoing
chemotherapy, and anyone with a compromised immune system should be especially
diligent about hand washing. This includes children.
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."