Hepatitis-contaminated salsa...illnesses that stow away on aeroplanes...pathogens you pick up at the gym...lately, it seems you can barely take two minutes to wash your hands without being bombarded by another frightening account of a dangerous microbe. But most of us are not paying attention to some surprisingly simple information that can keep us safe, explains Peter Iwen, Ph.D., associate professor of pathology and microbiology at the University of Nebraska Med-ical Center, US. To help you get a handle on what really poses a risk, we've listed 10 facts you should know about germs: where they hang out, how they do their dirty work, and the steps you can take to keep them from glomming on to you.
1. Trillions live in your body. As you read this, micro-organisms are crawling around your body—on your skin, in your gut, and even below the belt. But most of these germs are on your side, helping you digest food, stave off a yeast infection, and thwart harmful bacteria that also exist in your system, notes Iwen. "Without all the good germs, your body would be overrun with -dangerous ones, and you'd get sick," he says. Poor nutrition and stress can upset the balance of good bugs and bad bugs, as can antibiotics, which wipe out some friendly bacteria along with the malicious -microbes they're -designed to destroy.
2. They can lurk on surfaces for days. Doorknobs, towels, ATMs—these and other surfaces are coated with germs. "Cold and flu viruses are able to exist on inanimate objects for at least 24 hours," says Steven Weisholtz, M.D., chief of infectious diseases at Englewood Hos--pital and Medical Center, New Jersey, US. The simplest way to stay germ-free: af-ter touching a shared surface, keep your hands off your eyes, nose, and mouth—three main entry points for bugs—until you've washed them.
3. Germs 'fly'. It's not just surfaces you need to watch out for; the air we share is also a bug utopia. "If you're within 12 inches of a cold or flu sufferer who has just sneezed, their germs become airborne droplets that can reach you," says Bruce -Polsky, M.D., chief of the division of infectious diseases at Saint Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City, US. Last year's -worldwide -outbreak of SARS—a lethal -respiratory virus—was thought to be transmitted via airborne droplets as well as from -direct -contact with an infected person.
4. Hot water is optional. When it comes to washing your hands, it's the friction from soaping up and rinsing under running water that actually kills germs. Here's the right way to wash: lather each hand and rub them together for 15 seconds. Rinse. Do this after you use the bathroom, before eating, and prior to touching your face.
5. No, bugs are not scared by 'antibacterial' soaps. Researchers at Columbia University, US, found that a person's germ level doesn't change whether she washes with a regular soap or an antibacterial one. Can't get to a sink? Rubbing your hands with an alcohol-based cleanser works the same way.
6. Paper towels also protect you. After rinsing your hands, wipe away any lingering germs by drying your hands with paper towels. You might also want to hold a paper towel in your hand as you turn on the tap or grab the door handle. It seems excessive, but medical experts say it's a trick they use in hospital settings that can cut disease risk.
7. Your kitchen sink is the dirtiest place in the house. In fact, the entire kitchen qualifies as a pathogen paradise: your taps, refrigerator handle, cutting board, and sponge are loaded with bugs. The main source? Your food—particularly raw meat, seafood, and greens left out at room temperature, allowing bugs to breed swiftly. Even mishandling take-out food can cause germs to multiply.
To stay safe, refrigerate any leftovers. Throw them out after two days (if they were made with perishable greens or meat) or five days (if it's pre-packaged chow). Always defrost frozen meats in your fridge or microwave, and disinfect counters and cutting boards after every meal. Also, rinse your greens with adequate water and scrub them with a vegetable brush until all the dirt has been removed.
8. You can't 'come down' with food poisoning—that's crapshoot. Nothing makes you swear off eating out like news of another food-poisoning outbreak at a restaurant. But contamination may not have happened in the kitchen: ingredients could have been tainted at any point before they reached the eatery. In the case of a deadly hepatitis A outbreak at a restaurant near Pittsburgh, US, the FDA believes that raw scallions used to make salsa were contaminated either at the farm where they were grown, or while en route to the restaurant.
Reduce the risk you have of becoming a foodborne bug's next victim by avoiding raw or rare meat, poultry, and fish dishes, which can harbour E. coli and other potentially le-thal bacteria. "Ordering your meat well-done can ensure that your food reaches the safe temperature—160 degrees—while it's being cooked," says Dr Polsky. Also, avoid salad bars; the more pos-si-bly unwashed raw greens you eat, the higher your illness odds. "Fruits and vegetables are often grown on land that's contaminated by manure," he adds.
9. Surprise! Public toilets are pretty safe. Ever lower your bare butt onto a urine-streaked toilet seat? The sensation may yuck you out, but you're unlikely to catch -anything from another person's pee. There's also no reason to fear herpes or any other STD. Even if live STD germs are on the seat, there probably won't be enough of them to transmit an infection.
10. But the rest of the restroom isn't. After using the toilet but before washing up, a person can inadvertently spread germs from faecal matter to nearby surfaces such as the door lock, taps, and paper-towel dispenser—transmitting potentially dangerous bugs all over the restroom. On top of that, germs thrive in moist spots like the sink counter. While you can't do anything to make the lavatory cleaner, washing up on your way out will cut your illness odds.
11. Use the stall closest to the door. It gets the least traffic and is therefore less likely to be packed with germs, according to a 1997 study by the University of Arizona, US.
12. Antibiotics won't cure your cold. The cold, hard truth: viruses cause colds, and antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections, says Dr Polsky. So what can you do to cut your cold short? Not much, aside from treating the symptoms. That means getting adequate sleep to bolster your immune system, sucking down hot fluids to loosen nasal passages, and popping an over-the-counter pain reliever to quell body aches.
10. Your office is a bacteria cafeteria. With most desktops doubling as lunch trays, the typical work area registers sky-high germ levels. "Tiny food -particles left -behind spoil easily in stagnant office air and breed bacteria,"says Charles Gerba, Ph.D., professor of -environmental -micro-biology at the University of Arizona, US. If you ingest the particles, you could get sick. Such common surfaces as the copier and coffee pot are also -microbe playgrounds.
14. Germs stow away on airplanes. "Because cabin air is recirculated over and over during a flight, travellers may be exposed to the microbes that have been sneezed out by their fellow passengers," says Iwen. Get lots of rest before boarding and avoid alcohol.
15. Smooching your man can upset your stomach. "If your guy has or recently had a gastro-intestinal infection, the germs will be present in his mouth," says Dr Weisholtz. So duck your dude's lips if he shows any signs of illness.
16. Do not borrow your man's groom-ing gear. The odds of infection are low, but if your man has a blood-borne disease such as hepatitis C or HIV, you're at risk. "If he cut himself shaving and his blood dried on the razor then you used the same razor and also cut yourself, you could end up with his illness," says Dr Weisholtz. Sharing his toothbrush is also iffy: hepatitis B can travel from his gums to your bloodstream, and any oral bacteria in his mouth will take up residence in yours.
17. Smoking can make you more germ-prone. "Nicotine damages the hair-like filters in your windpipe, so they can't block out bugs that cause respiratory infections," says Dr Polsky.
18. Bacteria do not die in the microwave. Those crusted stains in your oven aren't just harmless grime—they may be the source of your next stomach-ache. "Bacteria are supported by the food particles left behind in a closed, stuffy oven," says Dr Polsky. "Eventually, there may be enough bugs to contaminate the food you're about to eat." So always wipe the inside of the microwave with paper towels and cleanser after you use it.
19. Germs prefer to steer clear of the treadmill. You might find a perspiration-soaked workout machine totally icky, but your risk of falling ill after using it is low. That's because sweat has a high salt content, which inhibits micro-organisms from growing, says Iwen. Instead, save your pathogen paranoia for the gym locker room. Fungal rashes like athlete's foot and ringworm may be present on the moist floor, and going barefoot there or in the shower leaves you susceptible.
20. Your water bottle is a buddingbug colony. If you keep reusing the same bottled-water container, you're probably sucking down scores of bacteria. "Bugs thrive in water, so the more often you fill up the bottle, the easier it'll be for germs from your saliva to multiply," explains Cindy Moore, director of nutrition therapy at the Cleveland Clinic, US. Buy a new aqua bottle every time or get a container that's intended to be refilled and wash it with soap after each use.