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U.S. Homes Losing Battle of the Germs

Study Shows Housecleaning Habits of Americans Leave Something to Be Desired

Hand Washing: Best Defense Against Household Germs

Tierno tells WebMD that 80% of all infections are transmitted by direct contact, such as touching a doorknob, shaking hands, touching your nose, or being the target of a sneeze.

Few people seem to realize that toilets throw out countless germs every time they are flushed, contaminating toothbrushes and other everyday grooming devices, he says. Thus, toothbrushes should be covered or kept in a drawer.

"Hand washing in and of itself can be the most important thing people can do," he says. "But people don't practice it, and if they do, they don't do it properly. You should wash long enough to sing 'Happy Birthday' twice."

Kitchen sinks, faucets, and handles often contain fecal matter because people don't wash their hands sufficiently, he tells WebMD. So do computer keyboards, telephones, books, and pens.

"You don't have to walk around with a spray bottle," he says. "Carry around an alcoholic gel to wash your hands. Wash often. You may not know it, but bathtubs are dirtier than toilets."

Housecleaning Has a Long Way to Go

Council member John Oxford, a professor of virology at St. Bartholomew's and the Royal London Hospital, Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry, tells WebMD that "this report kind of brings out the fact that we have a long way to go to get back to where we were after the Second World War."

Before antibiotics, people put more effort into cleaning, he says. But in the past few decades, he tells WebMD, "we have thrown away the advantage that antibiotics gave us. We are finding serous chinks in the armor in the kitchen. A lot comes from the toilet. People come out with fecal matter on their hands, and you can see this in any bathroom, with people just running a little water over their fingers."

Now, he adds, "it's time to pull our socks up. We've got to do better. Things have gotten relaxed. We've got to get the story out. Wash your hands. Cough or sneeze into your arm. Realize sneezes settle and you can get the germs from where they land."

But habits are hard to change, says Boadie Dunlop, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine, and being told to do unaccustomed things can raise anxiety levels.

"Hearing about germs that can't be seen is an abstraction," Dunlop tells WebMD. "If you see a piece of moldy bread on your counter, you are going to be highly motivated to throw it in the garbage. But it's not the same if you didn't wash down your countertops last night. You don't see anything."

A motivating factor behind good hygiene is a feeling of disgust, Dunlop says.

"You see a roach, rotten food, it's quite motivating to do something about it," he says. "It's visceral disgust, whereas things that you can't see, it's hard to get disgusted about. The issue of cleanliness is more one of disgust than anxiety."

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