BY KAREN ASP
IT’S SMART TO avoid harmful germs as
much as possible, considering that the
average adult catches two to three colds
per year, according to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention (
And, although the flu virus can linger a
few hours on a surface, the cold virus can
last for eight to ;; hours, and the norovirus can hang on for ;; days, says Jason
Tetro, a microbiologist who’s known as the
Germ Guy and is a visiting scientist at the
University of Guelph in Ontario.
Of course, because ;; percent of infectious disease transmission comes through
the hands, hand-washing still remains
your top defense. Soap and water is best,
but hand sanitizer with ;; to ;; percent
alcohol is just as good. The caveat? “You
must keep your hands wet for ;; seconds,
the equivalent of singing the alphabet, to
get the germs off,” Tetro says.
It helps to know where germs like to
congregate. Follow these strategies to
avoid germs in the following public places.
Office break room
The problem: Everybody who visits this
room brings germs, which commonly
invade coffee pot handles and tabletop
surfaces, says Charles P. Gerba, professor
of microbiology at the University of
Arizona in Tucson, and a Costco member.
What you can do: Besides being the
first one to the coffee pot, washing your
hands is essential, Gerba says. Encourage
your employer to place hand sanitizer
and disinfecting wipes in the break
room. Not an option? Put hand sanitizer
on your desk, and use it immediately when
The problem: Contrary to popular
belief, that door handle isn’t the worst
offender. “Door handles are pretty clean,
mainly because people are washing their
hands,” Gerba says. Surprisingly, the toi-
let seat is often the cleanest item.
The main worries include the floor—
;; percent of shoes have fecal matter on
the bottom, which gets tracked in—and
the tops and sides of stall doors. Because
people are avoiding latches, they then
touch these spots. Another surprise?
According to a study from the Journal of
Applied Microbiology that compared germ
dispersal by paper towels, warm air dryers
and jet dryers, jet dryers sprayed substantially more viruses, some almost ;; feet
from the dryer.
What you can do: Avoid setting purses,
bags or anything on the floor. If you do,
clean them (and whatever you do, don’t set
them on kitchen counters, where they can
transfer germs to food). Use the latches on
stall doors and opt for paper towels over
The problem: The plane’s physical
structure harbors two main germ areas:
FOR YOUR HEALTH
Costco members will find a variety of hand
sanitizers, wipes and other items at Costco
and on Costco.com to keep their home
and bodies clean.
restrooms and table trays. Restroom sinks
are so small that it’s tough to wash hands
well. Meanwhile, those tray tables often
don’t get cleaned during flights. “We’ve
found flu, norovirus and MRSA [methicil-lin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus] on
tray tables,” Gerba says.
And don’t discount fellow passengers
who are sneezing and coughing, especially if they’re within ; feet, the range
for droplets to spread.
What you can do: Carry hand sanitizer
to the bathroom and use it when you’re
done. To use the tray table, pack disinfecting wipes with you and clean that table
well before you set anything on it.
Wear a scarf, which will not only
make you look fashionable but also protect against flying droplets. “Studies have
found they’re ;; to ;; percent as effective as hospital masks,” Tetro says. When
you hear nearby passengers coughing or
sneezing, bury your nose in the scarf for
The problem: Elevator buttons and
escalator handrails are two of the biggest
germ mongers. Gerba’s team has found
mucus, blood and saliva on escalator hand-
rails; in elevators, the first-floor button is
often the most germ-rich. And if you have
kids, their germy hands can turn a play
area into a petri dish.
What you can do: Avoid touching escalator handrails, but if you must, at least
sanitize your hands when you’re off. In
elevators, either wait for somebody else to
press the button or use your knuckles. Or
just use hand sanitizer after touching the
button. Washing your kids’ hands frequently should be a priority.
The problem: Gyms may not be as bad
as you think, because folks are getting bet-
ter about wiping down equipment, Gerba
says. But that doesn’t mean germs aren’t
hiding on cardio and strength training
What you can do: Keep your hands
clean by washing or sanitizing them, and
avoid exercising next to anybody who seems
sick, moving at least ; feet away, Tetro says.
And by all means, do your fellow gym-goers
a favor and always sanitize equipment after
you use it, and even beforehand, if you want
to make sure it’s clean.
In the end, these strategies plus proper
hand hygiene will significantly reduce
your risk of getting sick. C
Karen Asp is an Indiana-based journalist.
How to fight germs
in public places