Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on March 17, 2021

Elevator Buttons

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Going up? Your risk of infection is if you touch an elevator button and then put your hand near your eyes, nose, or mouth. One study showed that more than a third of elevator buttons are home to MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can cause serious illness. They also found E. coli as well as acinetobacter, which can cause meningitis and pneumonia.

Hands

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Anyone who wants to enter your room should wash their hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer before they come in. Studies show that health care workers clean their hands only half as much as they should. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask if your medical team is keeping their mitts clean.

Waiting Rooms

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Viruses that spread by droplets in the air, like the flu and COVID-19, can move from person to person if you sit too closely together in a waiting room. That risk goes up the louder the infected person talks or if they sneeze or cough. Keep distance -- at least 6 feet -- between you and others as you wait in common spaces. Researchers studying hospital furniture and equipment found risky levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria on these surfaces. Safeguard against infection by wiping down armrests with an antibacterial wipe.

Stethoscopes

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The universal symbol for medical care most doctors wear around their neck is a common hotbed for harmful microbes. Luckily, doctors use these tools on unbroken skin, so the chance of infection is low. Still, some studies show as few as 5% of doctors clean their stethoscopes regularly.

Flowers and Plants

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Cut flowers in vases and potted plants brighten up a hospital room or a doctor’s waiting area. But the water and soil can harbor a lot of bacteria. Could you get an infection from these sources? You’re probably fine, but to be extra careful, don’t keep them on your bedside table.

Lab Coats

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There’s a chance that microbes from other patients could be hitching a ride on your doc’s classic white coat. In one small study, Staphylococcus aureus, the germ that causes infections like boils and toxic shock syndrome, was present on about 23% of the doctors’ white coats. A small set of that also included the antibiotic-resistant strain MRSA.

Ultrasound Equipment

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Researchers who looked at ultrasound equipment found bacteria nearly everywhere: the probe, cord, control knobs, computer keyboard, gel, and its bottle. Even when the part that touches you is covered by plastic, the rest of the tool probably wasn’t disinfected between patients. It’s possible a health care worker could pick up germs and pass them to you.

Charts

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Many people handle the folder that holds your medical records: doctors, nurses, other staff members. Studies in intensive care units found up to 90% of the binders were contaminated with bacteria. Among the microbes was methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which causes infections that are especially hard to treat.

Phones

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Hospital workers use mobile phones a lot, especially in intensive care units, to check in with other departments. Researchers have found that the devices are covered in bacteria, including drug-resistant types. In one study, a 1-minute phone call was long enough to transfer germs to hands that were previously clean.

Beds

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Cleaning between patients doesn’t always remove the germs from mattresses. Fungal infections at one pediatric facility were traced back to bed linens. Tests on bedrail microbes show they’re usually similar to those of the person in the bed. Unless beds are sanitized well between patients, bacteria will set up shop there and may find a new host in you, if you’re next in the room.  

Privacy Curtains

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A cloth divider can create a shield from extra eyes, but it’s also a highly touched object that may not get cleaned often, especially the edge. Studies show these curtains often host multidrug-resistant organisms (MDROs), likely because they’re not cleaned as often as other items in hospital rooms. Be sure to wash your hands after touching.

Tray Tables

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The rolling over-the-bed table that holds your food also holds a hidden risk: germs. These tray tables are considered  “high-touch” surfaces in hospital rooms, so there’s a greater chance they’ve gathered bacteria. There’s an easy solution: Give them a sanitized wipe before you tuck in for your meal.

Pens

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Hundreds of people a day touch the pens at hospital registration desks. Your best bet for keeping clean is to wipe down common writing tools with a sanitizing wipe before using -- or better yet, bring your own.

Floors

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Hospital room floors are sometimes covered in bacteria. Anything that falls and makes contact with them -- like your call button, for instance -- runs the risk of moving those germs to your hands. Carpeting in health care settings harbors pathogens, studies show, though there’s limited evidence that anyone’s health is harmed by it.

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SOURCES:

CDC: “Clean Hands Count for Safe Healthcare,” “Guidelines for Environmental Infection Control in Health Care Facilities,” “Science Brief: SARS-CoV-2 and Potential Airborne Transmission.”

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “The airborne lifetime of small speech droplets and their potential importance in SARS-CoV-2 transmission.”

Journal of Clinical Microbiology: “Sustained Reduction of Microbial Burden on Common Hospital Surfaces through Introduction of Copper.”

American College of Physicians: “How (and why) to clean a stethoscope.”

Mayo Clinic: “MRSA Infection,” “Staph Infections.”

American Journal of Infection Control: “Bacterial contamination of health care workers' white coats,” “Differential laundering practices of white coats and scrubs among health care professionals,” “Are hospital floors an underappreciated reservoir for transmission of health-care associated pathogens?”

Science: “The most dangerous germs in the hospital may be those you bring with you.”

Clinical Microbiology and Infection: “Bacterial colonization on writing pens touched by healthcare professionals and hospitalized patients with and without cleaning the pen with alcohol‐based hand sanitizing agent.”

Antimicrobial Resistance and Infection Control: “A randomized trial to evaluate a launderable bed protection system for hospital beds,” “Bacterial contamination of frequently touched objects in a tertiary care hospital of Pokhara, Nepal: how safe are our hands?”

Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology: “A quantitative approach to defining ‘high-touch’ surfaces in hospitals,” “Contamination of hospital curtains with healthcare-associated pathogens.”

University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy: “Resistant microbes commonly found on hospital privacy curtains.”

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: “Encouraging Patients to Speak Up for Clean Hands.”

Pediatrics: “Infection Prevention and Control in Pediatric Ambulatory Settings.”

Journal of Infection Prevention: “To assess the stethoscope cleaning practices, microbial load and efficacy of cleaning stethoscopes with alcohol-based disinfectant in a tertiary care hospital.”

NT Research: “Flowers in the clinical setting: Infection risk or workload issue?”

The American Journal of Medicine: “What to wear today? Effect of doctor’s attire on the trust and confidence of patients.”

Journal of Intensive Care: “Bacterial contamination of inanimate surfaces and equipment in the intensive care unit.”

The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal: “Mucormycosis outbreak associated with hospital linens.”

The Journal of Hospital Infection: “Survival of Acinetobacter baumannii on bed rails during an outbreak and during sporadic cases.”

Scripps Health: “Tips to Avoid Catching a Bug at the Doctor’s Office.”