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9 surprising places to find germs

November 10, 2009 – It’s time to stock up on chicken soup, tissues and anxiety – the flu and cold season has arrived.  Some people may ignore flu shot shortages and a co-worker’s sniffles, but the rest of us hit the barricades, armed with soap, a full medicine cabinet and wariness when offered a handshake.

Germs that cause illness lurk in some out-of-the way spots, and bacteria and viruses can remain active on surfaces for days or even weeks, especially in wet areas.  “Because of the natural moisture of our skin, we easily pick up these organisms, and we transfer them to our face,” says Elizabeth Scott, co-director of Boston’s Simmons College Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community.  Good hygiene in the home is especially important for people with compromised immune systems, Scott notes.

1.         Remote Control – Our favorite gadget may bring us hundreds of channels, but it also may bring even more germs.

University of Virginia Health System researchers, studying the homes of adults with early cold symptoms, found six out of 10 remote controls tested positive for rhinovirus. Traveler’s alert: Remotes in hotel rooms are rarely cleaned, scientists say.  That’s enough to make you want to skip TV and grab a book.

Protect yourself: Wash hands regularly and use hand sanitizers. Clean the remote with a disinfecting wipe before you start surfing channels.

2.         Salt and pepper shakers – Those sneaky condiment containers. The University of Virginia researchers in the same home study found an unusual location for rhinovirus — salt and pepper shakers. “A person gets mucus on their fingers, then picks up the salt and pepper shakers, and they leave [the virus] there,” says Dr. Owen Hendley of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville. Other germ reservoirs: Refrigerator and dishwasher handles.

Protect yourself: Wash hands frequently and clean objects with disinfecting wipes.

3.         Purse – It may match your outfit, but your bag also may carry a load of bacteria. In a small study, Nelson Labs of Salt Lake City tested handbags for traces of bacteria. Among the lipstick, pens, and odds and ends, they found staph, E. coli, salmonella and pseudomonas, which can cause eye infections. “They all had quite a bit of bacteria contamination,” says Amy Karren of Nelson Labs, which provides microbiology testing services. “All in all, the bags were quite dirty.”

Protect yourself: Hang up your purse, and keep it off the kitchen counter. Wipe the bag with a mild soap or disinfectant.

4.        Pets –Some dogs, cats and other animals have become infected with the dangerous methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). There’s even evidence that MRSA can jump between humans and pets.

In one test, Simmons College researchers swabbed random households of healthy people to find what pathogens were there. MRSA was found in about one-quarter of the homes, and cat owners were more likely than others to have it. But before you put your pet up for adoption, note that scientists say pet MRSA infections are rare, as is transmission of MRSA from humans to pets.

Protect yourself: Wash or sanitize your hands before and after playing with a pet.

5.         Grocery Cart – Those rolling carts may be bacteria wagons. A recent University of Arizona study found that the handles of almost two-thirds of shopping carts were contaminated with E. coli.  Drool, saliva and mucus from children also collect there. The grocery cart “is one of the most surprising places [for germs] we’ve come across,” says Chuck Gerba, a microbiologist who conducted the study.

Protect yourself: Swab the handle with a disinfectant wipe. Bag your fresh produce, and keep it off the seat where diaper-bottomed children have been sitting. systems should change showerheads regularly, and use metal ones, not plastic, researchers say.

6.        Showerhead – Besides jets of hot water, a shower may spray you with pathogenic bacteria. Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder studied 50 showerheads from nine cities and found about 30 percent harbored significant loads of Mycobacterium avium, a pathogen linked to pulmonary disease. It most often affects people with compromised immune systems, but occasionally can infect healthy people. The pathogens, clumped together on the inside of showerheads, can be inhaled into the lungs.

Protect yourself: Stick with baths? Not really. Showering is still safe for most people. Those with compromised immune systems should change showerheads regularly, and use metal ones, not plastic, researchers say.

7.         Desk –Office desks contain hundreds of times more bacteria per square inch than office toilet seats. Researchers at the University of Arizona, Tucson, did a study that found desks are also habitats for viruses, the pesky bugs responsible for the flu and colds.

“Desks in schools are much germier than office desks,” microbiologist Gerba says. “Women’s desks are germier than men’s,” he adds, because women tend keep a lot more food and cosmetics in and around their desks than men.

Protection: If you can’t retire early, try wiping down the work areas with disinfectant wipes and washing hands frequently.

8.        Cell phone – Your hands can be home to plenty of germs, and with regular cell use, the result can be a filthy phone. Cell phones also are stowed in nice, warm pockets, making a good breeding laboratory. Your phone can carry lots of bacteria, including staph, which can cause skin infections. The University of Arizona tested 25 cell phones and found staph growing on nearly half of them. “The flip phone is germiest because it keeps moisture in more,” says Gerba, who is also known as “Dr. Germ.”

Protect yourself: Use a disinfecting wipe regularly and think about where you lay your phone down. Wash your hands frequently. And be careful in borrowing someone else’s cell.

9.        Carpet – Besides tracking in dirt, the soles of shoes can bring indoors traces of coliform, which includes fecal bacteria. Carpets also harbor tons of bacteria, dust and pesticide residue. “It’s a living world right under your feet,” Gerba says. His University of Arizona study found more than 200,000 particles of bacteria in one square inch of carpet.

Protect yourself: Vacuum regularly with a strong vacuum cleaner. Even vacuum cleaners can have E. coli and salmonella growing inside them, Gerba says. Make sure you wash your hands after you handle a vacuum bag or receptacle, he adds. You may want to consider leaving your shoes at the door before entering the home.

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