Germs Are Everywhere -- Really
As you hit the road for summer travel, get in touch with those unsuspected surfaces that are breeding grounds for illness.
Besides providing a healthy renewal of mind
and spirit, a summer vacation makes good antimicrobial sense, especially when
you consider that typical workplace desktop has more germs than a public toilet
But let's face it, when you hit the road
for your weeklong escape, those kids arguing in the backseat or giant rodents
posing for photos at theme parks aren't going to be your only travel
companions. There are zillions of germs living on the umpteen surfaces you
And they don't take a vacation, even when
That could explain why 80% of infections
are spread the same way: Someone touches a germ-ridden surface. Or someone
infected by germ particles from a sneeze, a cough, or a touch -- gets the
infectious bug onto their hands.
What's In a Touch?
"Whether germs are viral, bacterial, or
fungal, some can remain active on most surfaces for several days -- no matter
whether the surface is stainless steel, wood, plastic, or even the paper in a
magazine," says Elaine Jong, MD, co-director of the University of
Washington Travel Clinic in Seattle.
"When you touch that surface, it's
transmitted to your hands. Then if you touch your eyes or rub their nose or
lips, when you eat or in any way get your fingers in contact with a mucous
surface, voila ... you have infected yourself."
The best way to prevent problems, of
course, is to never touch these "problem" surfaces. But that's not so
"The funny thing is, what many people
consider to be the germiest surfaces may not be so bad, while some of the most
germ-ridden areas are not what most people expect," says University of
Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD, a leading researcher better known in
the science world as "Dr. Germ."
Popular Opinion, Scientific Reality
For instance, Gerba recently completed a
survey of 1,000 people -- getting their opinions of where the germs collect in
full force, boosting their risk for infection, and compared those opinions to
the evidence he's collected in thousands of germ samples.
"Most people consider Port-a-Potties
and other public toilets to be the worst places in terms of surface germs. But
in reality, they don't even come close to what you'll find on ATM machines,
phone receivers, and elevator buttons," he tells WebMD. "That's because
those toilets are cleaned and disinfected regularly. But when was the last time
a typical phone or buttons on an ATM machine or elevators were?"
Of course, germs are everywhere -- and the
key to removing them is with a regular cleaning (soap and clean water) and
disinfecting. And because this one-two punch isn't done on many public
surfaces, Gerba notes that some of the germiest places you'll likely encounter
this summer include:
- Picnic tables. "They are never cleaned or disinfected and birds
like to roost on them, especially on picnic tables near a pond or in the
shade," says Gerba, a professor of environmental microbiology who has
collected thousands of germ concentration samples for dozens of studies.
"You should never eat from a picnic table, or even touch the surface,
unless you have your own tablecloth."
- Playgrounds. "Some are even worse than picnic tables, and that's
pretty bad -- and the monkey bars tend to be the very germiest place," he
says. "That's because they're primarily used by small children who rarely
wash their hands and run around with colds." Especially avoid tables and
benches, where diaper changes are often done, he advises.
- Airport bathrooms. The problem isn't that airport bathrooms aren't
cleaned and disinfected -- they are. "It's that so many people use the
bathrooms as soon as they leave the place that janitors just can't keep up with
the influx of germs from around the world."
What may surprise you, however, is which part of airport bathrooms are the
worst: "The faucet area is the dirtiest and the place that some people
worry about most -- the doorknobs -- typically are cleanest," he says.
And the toilet seats? Because they lack the moisture than helps germs
thrive, they have fewer germs than faucets. "My advice is to always use the
end stalls, whether at the airport or any other public bathroom," says
Gerba. "Most people use the middle stalls, so they tend to be the
germiest." In his studies, the stall that is farthest left (as you face the
stalls) has the fewest germs because it's used less than those on the right
- Hotel rooms. As a general rule, the higher the price the cleaner the
room. "I did a study about seven years that found if you paid more than $50
a night, there was a much greater chance that the room was regularly
disinfected," he tells WebMD. "Rooms under $50 weren't." But no
matter the price, the single place where you'll find the most surface germs:
the TV remote. "It's never cleaned," he says.