The Hidden Dangers Of “High-Touch” Surfaces

different sets of hands

( — Many of us may remember our grandmother or mother warning us to put paper down on a public toilet seat or open a public bathroom door with a piece of tissue or paper towel rather than our bare hands. Those notions may have seemed silly or old-fashioned at the time, but recent science has proven that certain “high-touch” surfaces can indeed harbor bacteria, viruses and other organisms that can actually make us sick.

Can You Even Count The Number Of Surfaces You Touch Every Day?


“High-touch” surfaces are generally defined as those surfaces that garner frequent and high volume use by multiple people, and they can be found in stores, restrooms, hotels, offices, schools, gyms, restaurants—anywhere that large numbers of people frequent. Some of the worst offenders, according to recent research, are mailbox handles, gas pumps and ATM buttons.

The danger in these surfaces is that, prior to touching them, many people will touch their noses, eyes, mouths and other body parts (or cough or sneeze into their hand) and then transfer whatever organism or body fluid that may be adhering to their fingers or hands onto the surface in question. While some organisms may die quickly, others can live for hours or days, thus putting you at risk of “picking something up” without being aware of having done so.

Normally, when you touch a surface with a potential “germ” on it, you will most likely subsequently touch your mouth, nose or eyes prior to washing your hands, and the “germ” in question will then enter your body through one of those facial orifices and its mucous membrane.

The Toilet Factor

Over the last decade or so, you may have noticed that disposable, flushable toilet seat covers have begun to be supplied in many public rest rooms. These paper covers protect you from coming into contact with bacteria, small amounts of feces, or other bodily fluids that the previous user may have left behind (no pun intended). When toilet seat covers are not provided, simply covering the seat with toilet paper can serve the same purpose.

Maybe your grandmother was a little overzealous in her desire to protect you from everything under the sun that might have caused you harm, but she was more likely than not on the right track.

We may not like to think about it, but restrooms do indeed harbor bacteria and viruses. Some studies of public restroom behavior show unequivocally that many men and women simply fail to wash their hands after using the toilet. Taking into consideration that public restrooms are already awash in potentially harmful (or at least bothersome) organisms, this proclivity towards poor hand hygiene is worrisome.

You may also have noticed over recent years that motion-activated faucets, toilets, urinals, soap dispensers, hand dryers and paper towel dispensers have also become more and more common. This not only cuts down on the amount of cleaning that a restroom needs, but it also removes from the equation many “high touch” surfaces that thousands and millions of people no longer need to interact with (and potentially get sick from).

At the Office

While restrooms are indeed great sources of “germs” that can give us the common cold, influenza and other communicable illnesses, the office is another example of an area with multiple “high touch” surfaces.

Think about it, what are some commonly used objects in your office that many people use throughout the day? Doorknobs, copy machines, fax machines, staplers, water coolers, coffee pots—these are all surfaces that can harbor bacteria and other organisms. While fear is not encouraged, vigilance, frequent handwashing and the thorough and frequent cleaning of such objects is highly recommended.

Handwashing Is Key

If you’re ever in a restroom or handwashing station in a hospital, you may notice that some facilities encourage earnest handwashers to scrub their hands for as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice, and then use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and to open the door. These actions protect the person who has just washed his or her hands from immediately contaminating their relatively clean hands on the faucet and doorknob that were sullied by previous users with less rigorous hygiene practices.

While antibacterial alcohol-based hand sanitizer or wipes are now often available at the entrances to schools, office buildings and grocery stores, there are also worries that this overuse of antibacterial products is leading to bacteria that are actually “resistant” to our antibacterial products. Still, the public awareness of the importance of hand hygiene is encouraging.

Speaking of hand sanitizers, research still shows that good old soap and hot water (without special antibacterial soap) is just as good—or better—at protecting us from bacteria and viruses than the antibacterial products. Additionally, traditional soap and water don’t contribute to the development of resistant bacteria and viruses.

A Little Paranoia Goes A Long Way

Some of this may indeed sound like a paranoid grandmother, but since science now backs up the fact that bacteria and viruses like to hang around on the surfaces that we touch so frequently, a little paranoia and attention to hygiene seems like a pretty good idea these days.

While proper coughing and sneezing techniques (sneezing or coughing into your sleeve rather than your hand) is catching on, many people still sneeze and cough the old-fashioned way (into their hands), and then touch doorknobs, faucets and all manner of objects with their potentially contaminated hands.

None of us like to get sick, and when we are not conscious of the surfaces and objects that carry bacteria and viruses that can make us sick, we put ourselves at risk of illness, which brings with it many financial, social and health costs that we would all much rather avoid.