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The Top 5 Places to Catch the Flu

Here we are just into the opening weeks of a new year, and influenza is well into its annual assault on America. Germs aren’t hard to find this season, but where they hide might surprise you.

At the Office
We spend more than a third of our lives at the workplace. This tops our list for flu exposure. Depending on the layout of where you work, you may find yourself uncomfortably close to a sneezing, sputtering coworker. Perhaps you share a telephone with several others. Breath is heavy with moisture and creates a nice warm place for bacteria and viruses to multiply in the telephone mouthpiece. So you may be sharing more that simply a telephone.

Keyboards also get pretty germy. Our fingers are moist and a bit oily, and leave a film on the keyboard surface. This is a perfect place to grow germs. Keyboard use is a good way to both leave and pick up germs. One study found more germs on a keyboard than a toilet handle. Where is that can of Lysol?

How about that break area at the workplace. Which refrigerator gets cleaned more often, the one at home, or the one at work? Washing coffee mugs at work usually takes a quarter of the time and half the amount of soap that the same mug would get at home. Not surprisingly, they don’t get too clean and can be a source of influenza germs. Has that sponge in the break room been replaced since the company opened? Old sponges smell bad for a reason. Old magazines in the break room have been read by generations of people, few of which wash their hands. Put those same magazines in a doctor’s waiting room, and they get to heroic levels of germs rather quickly. Magazines don’t do too well in the washing machine.

DSC_3958photo © 2005 Michael | more info (via: Wylio)

At Home
We all try pretty hard to not leave used tissues lying around the house – these are the hand grenades of the germ world. Germs are sneaky and inventive in their hiding places. The remote control gets handled by many greasy hands – chips and TV anyone? The kitchen at home is cleaner than the one at work but still contains more germs than the bathroom. When is the last time you cleaned the cabinet door to the kitchen waste basket? How about the refrigerator handle? Care to guess how many germs get tracked in on your shoes from the outside?

On the Go
Start with your own car. Rarely do we risk an accident by sanitizing the steering wheel after a good sneeze. Anyone else drive your car? Public transportation in its many forms also serves as a germ reservoir. From elevators and escalators to city buses, large numbers of often sick people pass though, leaving more than a footprint. Who last pushed that elevator button? Who last used the hand rails? I need to take a break and wash my hands.

Airplanes are particularly worrisome as far as influenza virus is concerned. The air in a commercial jet is re-circulated, perhaps better put, recycled. A couple hundred people are shoulder-to-shoulder and breathing the same recycled air. The air is filtered but lots of interesting germs can be cultured right off the filter. There is not enough space to separate you from the germ factory sitting next to you, and it’s always next to you, isn’t it? The aircraft bathroom holds the record for the “germiest” of public bathrooms – all of the usual sources of germs in one-tenth the space. The interesting roaring sound the aircraft toilet makes actually can put colonic bacteria (ecoli) into the air for all to breathe.

Your Retail Life
At least they have figured out shopping cart handles and placed disinfectant wipes close by. You might wipe more than just the handle, as the last user could have had a sick child in the cart seat.

Credit Cardsphoto © 2008 Andres Rueda | more info (via: Wylio)

Everybody knows money is dirty, but credit cards get handled a lot more and are never cleaned. How about the keypad in the grocery line with the credit card swiper? None are cleaned on any kind of regular schedule.

The gas pump handle also sees a lot of hand traffic but no cleaning.

Finally, your cell phone is not always your best friend. Pass it to friends to make a call, show a picture or share a Facebook comment – lots of hands, no cleaning.

Although it seems tempting, I don’t recommend you actually live your life in a bunny suit. Your immune system is designed to help you survive the various insults. You can give it a big help with a yearly flu shot.

Be well,

Dr. B

Combating Household Germs

Do you know your kitchen sink may be as dirty as your toilet bowel?

The kitchen sinkphoto © 2009 Alan Cleaver | more info (via: Wylio)

Given the amount of use, high traffic of organic material and moisture with relatively warm temperatures, the kitchen sink is a perfect breeding ground for many germs. Most people forget to sanitize their kitchen sink and don’t appreciate the potential bacterial source it is for contaminating food, utensils and hands. Many household areas where there is high traffic and surfaces that are touched frequently by family members can be potential sources of germs and contaminants. Most of these high traffic areas are taken for granted or cleaned only occasionally, but rarely sanitized.

The kitchen is not the only source but remains the single biggest reservoir of germs in the house. This is the area that gets a lot of traffic from adults, children, animals, and dirty and decaying food. As an area that is so intimate to our daily lives, it is easy to see how we can contaminate ourselves with germs in this room.

Kitchen towels and sponges are also very contaminated objects that easily transmit contaminants to hands and other surfaces. A dirty or musty sponge is used on most surfaces without a thought to how it is likely transporting and spreading germs. The towel that is used on your hands or counters to mop up spills also harbors germs. Also, don’t let dirty dishes stay in the sink overnight breeding germs. If your kitchen is as busy as most, the sink and countertops should be sanitized once a week or more often.

Commercially available products can be convenient for this purpose. Economical solutions of ¾ of a cup of bleach to one gallon water can be used on a cloth or in an inexpensive spray bottle on most counters or sinks.

• It is important to remove any food particles or organic material before this is done. Then let air dry.
• Cleaning cutting boards as well with a sanitizing solution is also important – just wash, rinse and allow to air dry.
• Towels should be cleaned and rotated frequently. They could be replaced entirely with a paper towel.
• A sponge can be sanitized in the microwave for 30 to 60 seconds. A well used sponge should also be replaced every 2 weeks.
• Hand washing is still an important part of good hygiene during food preparation.
• Plastic garbage can liners can help control spills and leakage from the trash collection.
• One last spot in the kitchen/dining area that is often overlooked is the salt and pepper shaker. Handled frequently by many people and never cleaned, they can harbor illness producing bacteria and viruses, so don’t forget to sanitize these as well.

The bathroom is another culprit when it comes to germs; however, the locations of the germs are again often overlooked. Toothbrushes easily harbor germs because of the moisture and usage. They should be located where they are not close to the toilet and where they air dry after each use. A single toilet flush can send a fine spray of mist several feet contaminating other areas of the bathroom.

bathroom paintedphoto © 2006 cara fealy choate | more info (via: Wylio)

• Since most bathrooms are quite compact, closing the lid before flushing will help.
• Storing personal hygiene products, towels and toothbrushes away from the toilet is prudent.
• A new toothbrush should be used every 2-3 months.
• If you have recently been sick, you may want to switch to a new toothbrush sooner.
• Toothbrushes can only be rinsed thoroughly with water and allowed to air dry completely.
• Areas of caulking between sinks, counters or tubs, and enclosures commonly accumulate high bacterial and mold counts due to their intrinsic traffic, chronic moisture and difficulty cleaning. Applying the same techniques of cleaning as in the kitchen with focus on the problem areas is necessary.

Other areas in the house that can be a problem are door knobs, computer keyboards and remote controls. They all get a lot of traffic from contaminated hands. Actually the amount of germs here are less than some of the previously mentioned areas. Nonetheless, a periodic wipe with a disinfectant like alcohol, bleach solution or one of the commercially available products for disinfectant cleaning is very smart. Also, change bed linens and rotate towels weekly.

Still, the most important and basic technique is covering a cough or sneeze and regular hand washing. Hand washing after using the bathroom or cleaning these areas, before food preparation or eating, is still the gold standard for prevention. Hand sanitizers can be useful in areas of the house where water is not available; however, 15-20 seconds of simply rubbing your hands thoroughly with soap and water is something that germs can’t beat.

– Dr. Bruce Kaler