Worried about you or your kids picking up the flu virus or other common illnesses at school, in restrooms or at the mall? There’s good reason: Viruses and bacteria run rampant on the surfaces you touch every day. We blow the lid on the 8 germiest public places and give you expert tips to avoid getting sick…
Touch a germ-infected surface, then rub your nose or mouth, and the next thing you know, microbes are dancing the mambo in your body.
With the cold and flu and other run-of-the-mill bugs crawling about public places year round, germaphobes have plenty to worry about.
Only 1%-2% are potentially dangerous to people with normal immunity. Plus, the body has an incredible ability to fight off germs. Special cells called neutrophils and lymphocytes (white blood cells) attack any microscopic invader.
Read on for the top 8 germiest public places and ways to stay healthy:
1. Grocery store
Germiest items: Shopping cart handles and seat buckets
Watch out! Shopping cart handles are a breeding ground for infectious viruses and gut-wrenching bacteria.
“Customers may sneeze, wipe their noses, then touch the cart handles,” says Lola Stamm, M.S., Ph.D., a microbiologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
They’re also contaminated by children’s dirty hands. And by leaky meat packages that you toss into your cart.
Poultry and beef can contain bacterial bombs such as salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli, which cause severe diarrhea, intestinal swelling, nausea and vomiting, she says.
Germ-free fix: Use disinfecting wipes on handlebars and seats – many stores now offer these at the entrance. And be sure to wash veggies and fruits before eating them.
2. Children’s playgrounds
Germiest items: The swings, jungle gym and other equipment Playgrounds are germ minefields. Kids touch everything they see and often put them in their mouths.
The largest threat is from fecal bacteria from bird poop on playground equipment and diaper-wearing tots, Gerba says.
Another kid-friendly hot zone: petting zoos and exhibits with animals infected with E. coli, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Germ-free fix: Wash hands thoroughly or use hand sanitizer after returning from playground, using the bathroom and changing diapers.
3. Public restrooms
Germiest item: Sink
Most women worry about public toilets. Well, you can sit a little easier now: The porcelain throne is not the biggest restroom offender. It’s the sink.
Bacteria swarm on the sink tap or faucet handles, Gerba says, because we touch them right after using the toilet.
Also, “the sink tap is a wet, moist environment,” so bacteria can survive there longer, he says. Watch out for soap dispensers, too, because they’re handled by many filthy hands, Stamm says.
Airplane bathrooms are especially germy because they’re small and used by lots of people, says Gerba, who foundE. coli on faucets and door handles in the dozens of samples from airborne restrooms.
In fact, an airplane’s faucet may be a greater threat than those in other public restrooms because the water is timed, so fliers have to touch them frequently to wash their hands properly, he says.
So what’s the cleanest part of a bathroom?
The toilet: About 48% of American women use covers or toilet paper to cover the seat, Gerba says.
Germ-free fix: Avoid touching moist surfaces and wash hands thoroughly after touching sink faucets and soap dispensers. And use a paper towel to turn the water off.
Germiest items: Telephones and desks
In a study of 113 work surfaces in offices in five of the nation’s big cities, Gerba found more than 25,000 bacteria hitching a ride on telephones. Desks and computer keyboards followed close behind.
In fact, your desk has 400 times more germs than a toilet seat, Gerba says. Why?
People don’t disinfect surfaces in offices, he says.
Another danger zone: Inside desk drawers, where workers stash food.
“Germs find plenty to snack on,” he says, like moldy fruit and opened bags of chips or crackers.
When it comes to germs, women are not the fairer sex. Bacterial levels in women’s offices were nearly three times higher than in men’s.
“Women seemed to have more stuff in their offices, from makeup bags to pictures of family and purses on their desks,” Gerba says.
Germ-free fix: Once a day, wipe down your desk, phone and keyboard with anti-bacterial wipes or cleaners.
Germiest items: Table surface, high chairs
No, contaminated food isn’t the biggest threat at restaurants — it’s the rag used to wipe the table “clean.”
When busboys wipe down a table or chairs, their dirty rags may be spreading a small film of E. coli, he says.
They should put disinfectant on the rag after each use, but Gerba’s studies show that the same cloth was used on more than a dozen tables before it was disinfected.
High chairs harbor fecal bacteria too, because they hold diaper-wearing tots.
Germ-free fix: Carry sanitary wipes to swipe the tabletop and high chair when you’re seated.
Germiest items: Countertops and surfaces
Libraries appear to be tidy, sterile places, but they crawl with as many germs as a fast-food restaurant.
Why so filthy? Lots of people shuffle through and peruse books, log on to computers and touch countertops, Gerba says.
Germ-free fix: Use hand sanitizer or wash your hands after thumbing through books or touching countertops.
7. Cruise ships
Germiest item: Handrails
Cruise ships are like floating cities, packed with thousands of people in a small space. That also makes them incubators for viruses and bacteria.
One study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that the cleanliness of a cruise ship’s public restrooms may predict subsequent norovirus outbreaks. Researchers found that only 37% of 273 randomly selected public restrooms on cruise ships were cleaned daily. One researcher noted that there was a substantial risk for washed hands to become contaminated when the passenger exits the restroom, as only 35% of restroom exit knobs or pulls were cleaned daily.
Germ-free fix: Wash hands frequently throughout the day and before touching your mouth or face, especially when smoking and eating.
Germiest item: Escalator handles
How often do you hang onto the escalator handrails while catching a ride at a shopping mall or airport?
Hands off: They’re teeming with germs, according to a study published in a 2005 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Health Research. Scientists took samples from dozens of escalator handrails across the country and found 19% showed high bacterial contamination.
“The sheer volume of people who touch escalator handles makes it a bacteria hot spot,” Gerba says.
Germ-free fix: Don’t touch them. But if you do, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer afterward.
Is Your Hygiene Heinous?
Good hygiene cannot be underestimated – your health, not to mention reputation, depends on it.