Worried about what you or your family are picking up in restrooms or while you’re out shopping? Well, you should be: Viruses and bacteria run rampant on the surfaces you touch every day.
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.
Unfortunately, going anywhere people congregate can boost your chances of getting sick, says Philip Tierno, Ph.D., author of The Secret Life of Germs (Atria) and director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. That’s because viruses and bacteria live practically everywhere — shopping malls, grocery stores, playgrounds, petting zoos, restaurants. They can survive up to two hours on shopping carts, escalator handrails, even doorknobs before they find their next victim.
“We encounter about 60,000 types of germs every year, but if you’re healthy, there’s no need to fear going out in public,” Tierno says.
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.
You can also give your defense system a boost by taking steps to prevent infection; in particular, knowing the top public places areas with the most germs:
The Grocery Store
Germiest items: Shopping cart handles and seat buckets
“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.
“If meat packages leak onto the conveyor belt, it could contaminate the food on the conveyor as well as your hands,” Stamm says.
About 70%-80% of the shopping carts tested nationwide had E. coli, says Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a University of Arizona microbiologist who spends a lot of time studying germs in public places. Also, a cart’s kid seats are E. coli hot spots “because they hold raw food and [diaper-wearing] kids,” he says. “And nobody disinfects.”
Be careful, too, around those enticing displays of fruits and veggies. Sprinklers used to keep produce moist may contain Legionnella, Stamm says. The bacterium can cause “a deadly respiratory tract infection, particularly in older people and others with underlying health problems.”
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.
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. (Rub hands together for 20 seconds under clean running water, the CDC advises).
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 found E. 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.