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Germ Warfare: Common Cold & Flu Culprits

It's cold and flu season again, and the most innocent of objects could be your greatest health threat.
By
WebMD Magazine - Feature

Spreading the flu isn't quite the same as spreading New Year's cheer. The dastardly duo -- cold and flu -- are back, and they're hiding everywhere, from the shopping mall to your doctor's tie to the telephone. For some of us, these seasonal sicknesses are already nesting in our lungs and sinuses and playing havoc with our immune systems. So what can you and your family do to stay healthy? With some help from Charles Gerba, PhD, professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, WebMD investigates where cold and flu germs live and hide so that you can take proper precautions or, better yet, avoid them like the plague.

Cover Your Nose

Did you know the technical term for a sneeze is sternutation? When it occurs, small particles are expelled from the nose at more than 100 mph -- almost 40 mph faster than a Cessna plane on takeoff, says Gerba. When you have the flu, the virus makes itself at home in the lining of the nose, causing irritation, swelling, and, yes, sternutation. So cover up when you achoo. Those fast-moving particles can cover an almost 3-foot radius, and once airborne, can easily be inhaled by the guy standing next to you. Guess what? Now he has the flu, too.

Grocery Cart Attack

Grocery carts haul more than groceries. "The cart handles are bad in terms of mucus and saliva, because half of American children put their mouths on those things," Gerba says. That means you can pick up a lot more than a great bargain on organically grown bananas. When leftover drool makes its way to your hands, and your hands make their way to your mouth, the flu has found itself a new home. The flu aside, whatever you do, don't put your fresh veggies in the grocery cart seat: "Diaper-aged kids sit in them, and they're prone to accidents. Next thing you know, their accidents are on your food." Ewww. That's enough to make anyone sick.

Going Down?

Two stories or 110 stories, if you want to leave a building, you'll have to press the first floor elevator button. It's exceptionally dirty, and a prime place to catch a cold. "If you can, get someone else to push it so you don't have to touch it," says Gerba frankly, if not exactly charitably. And if you're alone? Use your elbow instead of a finger to press the button. Or take the stairs.

Clean House

"It's a bacteria cafeteria," says Gerba of that nasty specimen near your sink -- the sponge. Next up, in order of being germiest around the house: dishcloths, the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink, cutting boards, the kitchen floor, the bathroom floor, the bathroom counter, and finally, in dead last, the toilet seat. "These are the places where fecal bacteria hide, and when we find fecal bacteria, we usually find the viruses that cause colds and flu."

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