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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.

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."

Hands off the Escalator

More than 40 million people visit the massive Mall of America in Minnesota every year. Multiply that by two hands per person, and you have 80 million opportunities to spread viruses that cause colds and flu among shoppers. Your local mall isn't so different. "Escalator handrails are pretty bad," Gerba tells WebMD. "We find mucus, saliva, blood -- they tend to be pretty grody." That's an understatement. Don't touch the handrail if you can manage without it.

Wash That Mug

Does your office coffee taste like slime? Maybe it's not the beans. Maybe it's that your coffee pot and mug have been cleaned with a dripping-with-germs sponge that's been used by every flu-ridden officemate from the first floor to the fifth. Or maybe one of your sniffling-sneezing colleagues has borrowed your mug because she misplaced her own. Hang onto your own mug -- and get thee to the dishwasher when it's time to clean it. Make sure the water temp is at least 100ºF.

Dirty Work

"The average desk area in an office has 400 times more bacteria on it than the average toilet seat," says Gerba, which means your workplace is a fine place for cold and flu germs to congregate. People sneeze, talk, eat, and breathe all over their desks (and their neighbors' desks) all day long, and cleaning at work is usually the last thing on someone's mind. When Bob from the next cube over lets out a whopping sneeze, the flu has just flown the coop, making a nice nest on your computer keyboard. "The office phone is the germiest, then the desktop, and then the computer keyboard," Gerba adds. The good news: After two days of being sanitized with disinfectant wipes, most desks have about a 99.9% reduction in bacteria and virus levels, including those that cause the cold and flu.

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