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12 Places Germs Lurk

Public health experts tell WebMD about the 'dirty dozen' of places where germs love to hide.
By Sherry Rauh
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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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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.

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."

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