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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.

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.

Potty Training

"People tend to go for middle stalls in a public bathroom," Gerba tells WebMD. "Those stalls tend to be the germiest because they get the most use." The more people who use a stall, the more they put their not-so-clean-hands contaminated with flu and cold viruses on doors, knobs, locks, flushers, and toilet paper rolls -- each an opportunity for you to pick up the germs they've left behind. "If you ever want to make sure you're going to have toilet paper in a public restroom, and maybe find a semiclean spot," Gerba suggests, "go for the first stall, because fewer people use it."

Keep Your Lunch to Yourself

Kids' sharing should be applauded, except when it comes to lunch: 84% of kids say they swap drinks, snacks, and sandwiches, which means your daughter's best friend's flu virus might migrate to her Sponge Bob lunch box. Worse yet, since more than nine of 10 kids keep their lunches anywhere but the fridge before their midday meal, they give the flu a perfect place to grow and thrive -- a warm, dark environment. A tip: Pop your child's juice box or water bottle into the freezer the night before. It'll act as a coolant the next morning, and hold off not only food-borne illnesses but also prevent viruses from multiplying in a lunch box before you have a chance to wash it.

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