Germs in the Kitchen

The kitchen harbors more germs than any other room in the home. Here are 10 tips to protect your family.

From the WebMD Archives

While bathrooms get a bad rap when it comes to germs, it's the kitchen that actually harbors more bacteria than any other room in the home.

And these germs -- the same ones that can cause a cold or flu to spread through a household like wildfire - lurk everywhere from the sponges you use to clean your countertop to your cutting board and the drain in your sink.

Still not concerned? Consider this: One single bacteria cell can become more than 8 million cells in less than 24 hours! The number of bacteria it takes to make people sick can range from as few as 10 up to millions. And infections spread when germs are transferred from a contaminated item (say, your cutting board) to your hands to your body.

But a little hygiene can help keep your kitchen bug-free this cold and flu season. Here are 10 ways to get started:

Zap away bugs.

Kitchen sponges are the No. 1 source of germs in the whole house. Why? The moist, micro-crevices that make a sponge such an effective cleaning device also make it a cozy home for germs and more difficult to disinfect. Wiping your counters or dishes with a dirty sponge will only transfer the bacteria from one item to another. "Wet your sponge and then pop it in the microwave for two minutes to eliminate the germs that lurk inside the crevices," says Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of respiratory care at Mount Sinai in New York City, and the author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds and Flu.

Practice good dishrag etiquette.

Your dish rags are really no better than your sponges. And like sponges, using a dirty dish rag to clean a kitchen countertop will only spread germs. Your best bet is to replace rags about once a week. "Allow them to dry out between uses because most bacteria thrive only in moistness," Schachter says. In fact, they can only survive a few hours on dry surfaces. "Rags should be washed in the washing machine and then dried on high heat," he says.

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Wipe away germs.

Faucet handles, refrigerator door handles, and doorknobs are next on the list of kitchen culprits that aid and abet germs. Use disinfectant spray or wipes on sink faucets, refrigerator handles, stove handles, cupboard handles, trashcans, doorknobs, and any other area that you touch with your hands. "These sprays or wipes kill germs on contact," explains Schachter. "This is really important and should be done several times a day before and after touching these objects," he says. "Don't forget to wipe down the telephone," adds Charles Gerba, PhD, a professor of microbiology at University of Arizona in Tucson. "A lot of times, someone is cooking and has a question for the original chef, so he or she calls their parents to find out how to make it and the bacteria gets slopped on the phone and it grows."

Clean the cutting board.

Cracks and crevices in your cutting board provide plenty of space for bacteria to grow. "The average cutting board has about 200% more fecal bacteria than the average toilet seat," Gerba says. "People don't disinfect cutting boards," he says, and they should. "Don't cut up chicken and then salad on the same cutting board without disinfecting it," he stresses. Better yet, "use separate boards for raw meat and making salads." Plus, he says it's important to clean and disinfect inside the fridge, microwave, cupboards and other surfaces that come into frequent contact with food.

Dust out the drain.

The drains in both your kitchen sink and bathtub provide yet another moist hideaway for bacteria. "To kill these bugs where they live use baking soda and an old toothbrush to get rid of stains, grit, and grime around drains," Schachter says. "Disinfect drains regularly as you would any other surface."

Put away your glassware.

Flu season spans from November through March, while cold season runs from about September until March or April. "To assure that no one drinks from the same glass, use paper cups during cold and flu season," Schachter says. And try using color coded paper cups: Assign each member of the household a different color.

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Wash your hands before meals and snacks.

It really works. "In the kitchen the No. 1 time to wash your hands and make sure your kids do, too, is before you eat anything," Schachter says. "Use soap and water and a little elbow grease," he says. "Anti-bacterial soap is a good idea for extra protection. People who wash hands seven times a day have about 40% fewer colds than the average person," he says.

Don't share hand towels.

After you wash your hands, dry them with a paper towel -- not a communal hand towel that can be a safe haven for germs, Schachter says.

Eat an apple a day to keep the doctor away.

While there is not a direct correlation between nutrients and immunity, "children who eat poorly and don't take in enough calories have weaker immune systems and are more likely to pick up a cold or flu," Schachter says. Make sure your refrigerator is stocked with healthy fruits, vegetables, and snacks year-round.

Have it well-done.

Cooking food thoroughly and evenly will reduce the number of germs. Generally, the higher the temperature reached, the more germs are killed. "Also, wash salads, fruits, and vegetables thoroughly in clean water to remove all traces of soil, insects, or pesticides," Schachter says. Eat cooked food immediately. Or cool and refrigerate it within one hour. And never reheat food more than once, he says. It's also a good idea to keep your refrigerator at or below 37°F. This will help slow down the growth of germs in your chilled food. Keep freezers at or below 0°F.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Jonathan L Gelfand, MD on October 18, 2007

Sources

Published Oct. 17, 2005.

SOURCES: Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of respiratory care, Mount Sinai, New York City; and the author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds and Flu. Charles Gerba, PhD, a professor of microbiology at University of Arizona, Tucson.
© 2005 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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