Germs are everywhere. Bacteria, viruses and fungi are universal inhabitants of our environment. We are in constant contact with microbes. Even though most microbes have the potential to cause illness, most are bystanders. Most of the germs that can cause disease in humans usually don’t, largely because of good hygiene practices and our amazing immune system.
Even healthy people are colonized with hundreds of microbes. Hundreds or even thousands of bacteria and viruses are normal healthy inhabitants of the human body. Known as the human microbiome, this diverse group of microorganisms establishes a microscopic ecosystem on human skin, gastrointestinal tracts and other sites from birth. The microbiome plays an in important role in how our organs and immune system develop, our metabolism, and even protects us from invading pathogens!
In fact, each person has a unique set microbial make-up, and recent research suggests that this “bacterial fingerprint” can even be used to identify people…and their houses or belongings. (Gilbert et al. Science 2014 vol 345)
However, there are definitely locations within the home and public environments that are much more likely to harbor potential pathogens. While no single study has been able to determine which surfaces are most contaminated, findings from the 2011 National Science Foundation Germ Study are interesting.
The kitchen holds the title for “germiest place in the house”, where bacterial contamination is far more common than in the bathroom, for example:
- Kitchen rags, towels and sponges are notorious for bacterial contamination
- The sink drain, sink and countertops are also frequently contaminated
- Cutting boards, coffee filters, the dishwasher and fridge seals are also top locations for contamination.
See a trend here? Areas that are frequently damp, and in contact with hands and food are much more likely to harbor bacteria. Even the faucet filter may be contaminated with films of bacteria. Studies show that we would do well to clean these surfaces much more often.
The bathroom is not off the hook. Up to 1/3 of toothbrush holders may harbor bacteria, and bathroom faucet handles may also be contaminated. Contamination of bathroom surfaces is far more common in public restrooms. One study recently showed that even the soap dispensers can be a perfect environment for bacteria to subsist. Some viruses, include human papilloma virus and human herpes viruses have also been identified from bathroom surfaces.
Other high-contact surfaces. While fewer bacteria colonize dry, solid surfaces, areas of the home that come into contact with people are commonly contaminated with the bacteria that also live on our skin. This includes bedding, counters, and lights.
Don’t forget electronics! Cell phones and other gadgets are often the most contacted item we own. Not surprisingly, multiple studies have shown that cell phones are frequently colonized with bacteria, as are TV remotes, and other items. One recent study found that cell phones belonging to women, and devices carried in a bag or purse rather than a pocket harbored more bacteria!
How long do germs live in the environment? Not all germs are the same and some are much more hearty than others. Viruses are responsible for the majority of common household illnesses. Most viruses, including those that cause the common cold, are only able to live on dry environmental surfaces for a matter of hours. Bacteria on the other hand tend to be more unwelcome house guests, and, and in the right conditions can live for months!
What can you do?
The good news is that by following simple practices, we can avoid getting sick.
- First, keep your hands out of your face! Many viruses are spread from surfaces to hands to our face, and studies show that the average person touches his or her face four to 18 times per hour!!
- Secondly, frequent hand hygiene, with soap and water or alcohol-based sanitizer is an effective barrier to colonization.
- Cleaning kitchen, bathroom and high-contact surfaces and changing towels and sponges every 3 days is another effective step.
- Cleaning sink drains, coffee filters, faucets and other areas where moisture collects with disinfectant products is important, and throw those old sponges away!
- And don’t forget to gently clean your mobile device with a moist, lint-free cloth or occasionally with alcohol-based disinfectant products made specifically for these devices.