Germs Are All Around Us: How Can We Stay Healthy?

We are all exposed to a huge variety of germs every day. In fact, if Google Glass eventually offers microscopic vision, we may walk around with gloves on and never eat in a restaurant again. Microbes are all around us, and the question is, “What do we have to worry about?”

The human body is an amazing machine. Many things go on inside of our bodies every day that keep us breathing and moving. Our heart pumps blood. Our stomach and intestines digest food. Our brain sends signals to all of the other parts to keep them working. Most of the time, everything works in harmony to keep us in good health. Sometimes, though, the body is invaded by tiny organisms that make us sick. These little invaders are called germs.

Germs are very, very small. They are so small that the naked eye cannot see them. An instrument called a microscope must be used to see them. We can’t see them sneak into our bodies, but we can tell that some of them are there because they make us feel sick.

There are four main types of germs: bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa. Although they are all germs, they each have their own characteristics.

Our Several-Billion House Guests

First, let’s take a look at our homes. Did you know that there are at least several billion microorganisms keeping you company in your home? Most of them are harmless, but some could be potentially dangerous. Let’s look at a few locations.

We all suspect that the kitchen is one of the dirtiest places in the home. One surprise is that the kitchen floor, just in front of the sink, has more bacteria than the trash can. And yes, the sponges around the sink own a large burden of bacteria.

Did you know you can sterilize a wet sponge by putting it in the microwave for two minutes? Just be careful taking it out of the microwave— it’s going to be hot.

Now note if you wash chicken in the kitchen sink, and either a sponge falls in, or you turn on the faucet with unwashed hands, both can become contaminated with virulent intestinal pathogens like campylobacter or salmonella. Some people don’t realize that when you ush a toilet, bacteria in the toilet actually disperse into the air, so anything within a three-foot radius could be contaminated. So close the lid if you can.

Even toothbrushes lying around can be contaminated. In fact, the average toothbrush after brushing has over 10 million germs. However, as long as it’s your own toothbrush, these are your own bacteria, and not harmful. Resist the urge to share toothbrushes, as besides bacteria, they could pass on blood- borne viral diseases such as hepatitis B and C and, of course, infectious mononucleosis without a kiss.

Other things to watch out for are sharing makeup, which may result in sharing bacteria, and sharing razors, which may inadvertently share MRSA or blood- borne viruses. While in college, my daughter called me for an immediate consultation when she found out her roommate had used her razor.

It seems that some cultures have got it right about shoes, leave them at the door. You not only can keep the house cleaner, but you don’t track in allergens and potentially pathogenic germs. One study found as many as nine different pathogenic bacteria were in the dirt or other assorted things stuck to the bottom your shoes. You can then transmit them to tile or carpeting all over your home.

Germs Camping Out on Your Touchscreen

Well, what about our personal electronic devices? If you personally are the only one using your tablet, laptop, or cellphone, similar to your toothbrush, you’re likely OK, since the germs are your own. However, be careful where you place these devices. Studies have shown that 16 percent of cellphones have intestinal bacteria on them.

I’m sure you’re wondering, how long can germs live on surfaces? In general, cold and u germs from sneezes can live on hard surfaces for up to 48 hours. The swine u has actually been shown to survive in the environment for up to five days. So think about this before you hand your cellphone over to your sick spouse, family member, or friend. If you’re worried about this, you could purchase a device that you can put over your cellphone, which bombards the phone with ultraviolet light to kill 99 percent of bacteria, for about $25.

Germs on technology devices and elsewhere have opened up a new market of products to kill germs and protect you in the process. It’s obviously difficult to clean your laptop or tablet with bleach or alcohol, but new products are emerging like washable screen protectors and disposable covers that enclose the entire device. These may be particularly useful in healthcare environments, where there is a huge potential for pathogens to easily get from workers’ hands to tablets or computers.

As for the tablets in the terminal airport, if you use them, be sure you wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Washing your hands is the one thing you can do to significantly reduce the chances of getting sick. We’ll explore what’s really necessary for proper hand washing later in our lecture.

What might be slightly more problematic at our airport terminal is that, unless you carried a miniature hand sanitizer bottle with less than four ounces of fluid, the sanitizer is probably in your medicine bag, being loaded on the plane.

Speaking of touchscreens, one research project found thousands of bacteria on the Amtrak touchscreen at the train station. Since most germs were nonpathogenic staphylococci from the skin, you can take some partial reassurance. But you should figure out your own strategy for touchscreens, including grocery stores, ATMs, ticket kiosks, and airport check-ins.

Germs Enjoy Traveling, Too

Now, speaking of traveling, what do we need to know about germs in advance of going on a trip? A study was done in 2011 on sites of possible contamination during a cross-country trip, for example, in a personal car, on commuter train seats, and in a taxi. The findings were not that surprising after examples from the home and electronic devices. There were hundreds of bacteria on the rental car seats, as well as staphylococcus on the train and taxi seats. Most of these, again, are non-pathogenic bacteria.

It’s important to know that if there are some potential pathogens like E. coli, our immune systems should be strong enough to prevent major illness. Realize, too, that every pole you hold on the train, bus, or subway has the possibility of spreading colds and flu virus, and the bacteria we’ve all been discussing. Viruses are more likely to cause illness than bacteria, since the mucous membranes of the nose and the eyes are more easily breached by viruses. Like I said—germs are everywhere.

Well, what about planes? We’ve heard speculation that contaminated air circulating on airplanes is responsible for spreading germs. However, a revealing study now cites low cabin humidity as the potential biggest culprit if you become ill. Why is this?

At low levels of humidity—around 10 percent when flying at 30 to 35 thousand feet—the mucous membranes in our noses and our throats become drier. In a normal environment, viruses and bacteria are trapped and moved on by the cilia, or hair sweepers, to be destroyed by infection- fighting white blood cells.

When the membranes are dry, the mucus may get too thick to move easily. Therefore, viruses and bacteria stay in the upper respiratory tract for longer periods of time. This low humidity factor also applies to wintertime conditions for the transmission of germs.

Well, what places are the germiest places on the plane? According to multiple sources, it’s likely the restroom on the plane, but there are a lot of areas that are a close second, like airplane trays or aisle seat handles. Of course, with lots of people in small spaces, there are more opportunities to share germs directly from person to person. So what do you do if the person next to you on the plane is coughing or sneezing?

The most dangerous neighbors are those sitting within a two-seat radius. Why? Importantly, 6 to 8 feet constitutes a safe distance that bacteria and viruses cannot really be transmitted by aerosolized means of coughing or sneezing. Why? Because most of the bacteria or viruses will fall to the ground in that distance. This obviously makes it difficult to keep your distance from seated neighbors on the plane.

There are a few germs with exceptions to the 6 to 8 foot distance, and these include a few viruses and Mycobacterium tuberculosis, or TB. TB is exactly 3 microns in size, the exact size of dust particles in the air, so TB can float from minutes to hours over hundreds of feet. And it’s no wonder that tuberculosis has been with us for centuries, and is still one of the most contagious diseases in the world.

One highly publicized case of transmission of pathogens during air travel occurred in 1998 when a passenger with active TB infected 13 other passengers who sat in his vicinity on the plane. You might be surprised to know that the actual airplane air is as well protected as the inside of a hospital. Airplanes have high efficiency air particulate lters, or HEPA lters, with the ability to lter more than 90 percent of known particulate matter, including those that may be suspended in the air. So don’t think you should worry too much about it. Just take appropriate precautions, if you can, for sneezing neighbors.

Pass The Germs, Please

Now, what about restaurants? “Pass the salt and pepper.” “Can I have the ketchup, please?” Oh, no. Now we have to deal with the germs in a restaurant. Yes, menus carried the most germs in a recent study—185,000, to be exact. This was followed, in second place, by the peppershaker, having 11,000 germs. This information will probably having you picking up the salt shaker with a napkin, or running frenetically to the restroom to wash your hands after ordering your food. But, similar to our transportation example, most of these bacteria will be harmless. But you can’t control the unusual germ. Listen, you can only do what you can, but the point is—protect yourself as far as your common sense can take you, then relax and eat.

Germs on Vacation

What about hotels? Concerns that the bedspread on hotel beds is an item that doesn’t get cleaned enough might be well founded. Some scientists have recommended removing this item, and the concept of bedbugs are beyond our discussion today.

Are there other hotel items that aren’t living up to standards? One study found that light switches and bathroom floors were all contaminated with intestinal bacteria. Light switches had 216 bacteria per square inch. And the dirtiest site of all was actually the television remote. It’s interesting to note that one hotel chain has now implemented a new cleaning program in its hotels—scanning with black lights and UV light wands to spot and destroy germs.

Germs in the Gym

Okay, back home after your trip, you’ve decided to hit the gym due to overindulging on vacation. Many people don’t realize or think much about germs in the gym, but in fact, gyms are a haven for germs. Think about the circuit-training scenario—you move from machine to machine, touching handles, changing weights, lying on mats, and often sitting on other people’s sweat. Can you contract real illness from this? You bet.

Most gyms now supply cleaning solutions and towels to wipe down the equipment. Use it. Keep any cuts or injuries fully covered when working out at the gym. The most serious germ you can acquire in the gym is methicillin- resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. While you likely have the common sense not to share locker room towels, this was not an uncommon practice for teenagers in gym class, until the risk of MRSA was more widely publicized. And at least four professional football teams have been plagued with MRSA in their locker rooms over the past decade.

Also, both plantar warts—a virus, and athlete’s foot—a fungus, can be contracted by going barefoot on gym floors and locker rooms. Wear shower shoes in the shower and locker room. Yes, this is where the term “athlete’s foot” comes from. Well, what does this mean for our yoga friends? Bring your own personal mat, and wear socks until you get to it. It’s especially important for “hot” yoga classes where people sweat a lot.

Putting Up A Smart Defense

So, now that we talked about where germs lurk, let’s talk about how to keep yourself well. First, let’s take a look at respiratory hygiene. Many diseases are spread by coughing and sneezing. When you cough or sneeze, germs can travel up to 6 or 8 feet. Using a tissue, or your hand, or a bent arm to cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing can help stop the spread. Throw used tissues away, and clean your hands afterwards. One important basic fact: we touch our faces with our hands around 20 times per hour. So try not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth, which are mucous membranes, which provide easy access to your body for germs. Even when your hands appear to be clean, germs are often spread this way.

Now, can ultraviolet technology help us? UV lights or wands utilize short- wavelength UV radiation that is harmful to microorganisms. You can purchase one for about $40 that claims to kill 99 percent of bacteria. If you use the wand effectively, the surfaces need to be smooth so germs can’t hide in the cracks. UV is effective in destroying the germs by disrupting their DNA, leaving them unable to perform vital cellular functions. UV disinfection actually has a real role in hospital environments for TB and Clostridium difficile spore disinfection.

Also, it’s been used in, and increasingly has been employed to sterilize water. The Environmental Protection Agency has accepted UV disinfection as a method for drinking water processing plants to contain the spread of parasites like cryptosporidium, giardia, or even for virus inactivation.

Alcohol Sanitizers vs. Germs

Well, what about alcohol-based hand sanitizers? They contain 60 to 70 percent alcohol, so they can kill most germs instantly by denaturing, or twisting out of shape, proteins in bacteria and most viruses. Since they are convenient and they act quickly—within 15 seconds—they are widely used in hospitals and marketed in many stores.

Note that alcohol is not selective. It kills both pathogenic bacteria as well as commensal, friendly bacterial flora. It’s good to know, though, that research has shown that alcohol hand sanitizers do not necessarily pose any risk by eliminating good microorganisms that are naturally present on the skin. This is because your body quickly replenishes the good microbes on your hands. However, alcohol also strips the skin of outer layers of oil, which may have negative effects on the barrier function of the skin.

How do you use alcohol hand gels? The Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, Clean Hands Campaign has instructions on how to use hand sanitizers properly. You have to put the alcohol gel in the palm of one hand. Apply enough of the product to wet your hands completely. Next, you rub your hands together, and you clean all parts of the hands— fingers, thumbs, nails, and wrists. And you rub your hands together until they’re dry. You know you’ve used enough of the hand rub if it takes 25 to 30 seconds to dry on your hands.

The Mayo Clinic also has a list of recommended conditions for sanitizing hands with gels or washing hands with soap and water. A small sampling of this list includes, before preparing or eating food or eating, before treating wounds or giving medicine, before touching sick or injured people, before inserting or removing contact lenses, after preparing food, especially raw meat or poultry, after using the toilet or changing a diaper, and after touching an animal, animal toys, leashes or animal waste.

Well, what about washing hands with just plain soap and water? To see how alcohol gels may not live up to all their expectations, let’s take a further look at a small round virus known as Norovirus. It’s the most common cause of gastrointestinal illness in the United States, affecting millions yearly. It’s also the most common cause of food-borne illnesses, usually spread by food workers who don’t wash their hands properly.

And it’s contracted by ingesting food or drinks contaminated with the virus, touching surfaces that are contaminated, then putting fingers in the mouth. This cycle is important because it describes the fecal-oral route of transmission that is frequently cited in our lectures.

Also, sharing items like serving or eating utensils with someone who is sick with the virus, or on a buffet, for example, can lead to Norovirus infection. This is another reason that there are hand washing signs posted in restrooms that serve the public—to remind people that germs can be transmitted unintentionally by unwashed hands.

Well, alcohol gels do work against many viruses. Unfortunately, not very well against the Norovirus. This is why I had a heated discussion several years ago with the CDC after I returned from a cruise. I was glad to see that the CDC has now placed guidelines for hand washing for cruise ships on their website, which includes hand washing with soap and water, not just alcohol gels as the rst line of defense.

If you are using soap and water, you should wash your hands for about 24 seconds, lathering fully and covering all sides of your hands and fingers to completely remove bacteria. Twenty-four seconds is two rounds of the Happy Birthday song. If you wash your hands correctly with plain soap and water, you have a good chance of avoiding many opportunities to get sick.

What about anti-bacterial soaps? Does this add anything to the routine hygienic process? There are several kinds of anti-bacterial soaps. The most common sold in stores contains a product called triclosan, while the most common used in hospitals contain ingredients povidone-iodine or chlorhexidine gluconate.

Clean Home = Healthy Life

So, besides soaps and gels, what other disinfectants are available? Well, good, old-fashioned bleach is still known to be 99 percent effective against pathogens, thanks to its active ingredient, hypochlorous acid. It attacks proteins in bacteria, causing them to clump together and die. This reaction is similar to the way bacteria respond to high temperatures—like the sponge in the microwave. A dilute, 1 percent bleach bath has been used to help families that cross transmit skin pathogens like MRSA.

A list of disinfectants are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, and they can be found on its website. You might be interested and surprised that the list includes Thymol, a derivative of the herb thyme. This can now be found even in bathroom cleaners made by companies that are responding to consumer requests for less toxic cleaning products.

Another earth-friendly product, vinegar, is useful for killing some things, but not others. For example, it is effective for killing the flu virus but not staph. It seems to be about 90 percent effective against other bacteria, and about 80 percent against other viruses. I personally use it to disinfect algae in my outdoor water dishes that I leave outside for my dogs. It’s cheap, non-toxic, it’s biodegradable, it has anti-microbial properties due to its 5 percent acetic acid.

Well, the Internet is a good source for up-to-date green cleaner recipes. Tea tree oil may be added to commercial products, such as body wash, skin cream, and nasal ointment, due to its antimicrobial properties. Its structure appears to disrupt the cell membrane of MRSA. The clinical efficacy in body wash and creams to reduce the number of MRSA germs actually has been documented.

5 Second Rule: Fact or Myth?

Lastly, you probably have heard about the “5-second rule” where if you drop a piece of food, is it still okay to eat if you pick it up within 5 seconds? Have you done this? Would you say this is myth or a fact? Under most circumstances, the answer is, it’s probably okay. A 2014 study from England showed that time is a significant factor in the transfer of bacteria from a floor surface to a piece of food. And the type of flooring the food has been dropped on also has an effect, with bacteria least likely to transfer from carpeted surfaces and most likely to transfer from laminate or tiled surfaces.

Most germs that are crawling in the environment are usually commensal organisms and benign to most of us, but individuals with compromised immune systems, such as those receiving chemotherapy or taking moderate doses of steroid medications, should resist the urge to eat food that has been dropped on the ground or the floor.

Now, I personally and intentionally used to demonstrate the 5-second rule for my family, with a lot of “Ew, gross.” in the background from my children. But it never adversely affected me. However, scientists at Clemson University tested the 5-second rule by applying the pathogenic salmonella germ to tile, wood, and carpeting, and they examined how the germs survived to see if they would transfer to slices of bread and bologna on these surfaces. They learned that within 5 seconds, both foods picked up hundreds to thousands of bacteria. So, not every surface germ may be harmless.

So please take this information and decide how it applies to your daily life. Just having an awareness of the germs in our environment is the first step towards staying as healthy as possible.


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