August 12, 2008 in Features

Where germs come from

Worried about catching a bug? Simple changes can help improve your health
By Barb Berggoetz The Indianapolis Star
 
Associated Press photo

Your desk at work is a bad place to eat lunch because of bacteria. Better to keep food away from your cubicle.
(Full-size photo)

Location, location, location. That’s not just a mantra for real-estate agents.

How you organize and control your environment – house, workplace, daily movements – can help or hurt your chances of staying fit and healthy. It’s those simple tasks done every day, sometimes without thinking, that can play a role in how often you feel tired, get exercise, come down with a cold or get even sicker.

Eating or coming into contact with a few bacteria usually won’t hurt you, but some can make you sick. Poor sleep habits can deprive you of needed shut-eye time. And skipping visual cues to exercise can keep you on the couch.

There’s no way to live a completely perfect, germ-free life, acknowledges Dr. Aaron Carroll, director of the Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research at the Indiana University School of Medicine. And there’s really no need to.

“Do the things we know work to keep yourself as safe as possible,” he says.

Consider these simple steps to improve your health:

Where to place your purse: Bad place: The kitchen counter. Research by germ expert Charles P. Gerba showed up to 10,000 bacteria per square inch on purse bottoms – and a third he tested were positive for fecal bacteria. You’ve probably set your own bag on a public restroom floor, right?

Good place: In a drawer, on a chair or off the floor. It’s smart to wipe down the outside with disinfectant, too.

Where to put your toothbrush: Bad place: Anywhere near the toilet. Gerba, environmental microbiology professor at the University of Arizona, has spent a lot of time tracking germs in offices and homes. When you flush, aerated toilet water is sprayed up to 5 feet, so it can land on your toothbrush, he says.

Good place: The medicine cabinet or a nearby cupboard. But don’t keep it in a closed container, says Gerba, except for short periods when traveling.

A warm, moist container, especially if the toothbrush is wet, will encourage bacterial or fungal growth, says Robert W. Golden, a Purdue University biosafety officer. Better to keep it upright and dry.

Where to read at night: Bad place: In bed with a bright overhead light. The light delays the body’s secretion of melatonin, the hormone that signals your body to sleep, says Dr. Ali Artar of the St. Vincent Sleep Disorders Center.

Good place: Anywhere you can use dimmer bedside lighting or one of those clip-on book lights.

Where to set fruits and vegetables before washing: Bad place: Directly in the kitchen sink. Gerba found more fecal bacteria there than on toilet seats, probably from raw meat products.

Good place: In a colander. Be careful of cross-contamination between meat and fresh produce, making sure to wash the cutting boards, says Dr. Carroll. Don’t forget to wash your hands before and after handling meat and produce. While alcohol-based solutions work in hospitals, they don’t work as well with germs involving food, dirt or real-life situations, he says.

Where to fall asleep at night: Bad place: Buried under a lot of covers (with socks on, to boot). That won’t help you doze off. As people go to sleep, their body temperatures need to drop a few degrees to help trigger drowsiness.

Good place: Beneath a lightweight cover. Also try taking a warm shower or bath before bedtime, so the body will start to cool itself naturally, or run a fan, says Dr. Artar of the St. Vincent Sleep Disorders Center.

Where to keep your meds: Bad place: A bathroom medicine cabinet. The excessive heat and the moisture can cause a drug to rapidly lose its effectiveness, says Ron Snow, pharmacist manager at CVS Pharmacy’s regional office in Indianapolis.

Good place: A pantry or cabinet that’s room temperature and out of direct sunlight, Snow advises. If children are around, keep prescriptions in locked cabinets.

Where to eat lunch: Bad place: Your desk. Women’s desks harbor even more bacteria than men’s desks, says the University of Arizona’s Gerba, because 70 percent store biodegradable food items, such as fruit.

Good place: The cafeteria, or anywhere away from your cubicle. If you must eat straight through lunch hour, at least wipe the desktop down (along with germy phones and keyboards) with an antibacterial wipe. Water will just spread around the germs, Gerba says.

Where to go to the restroom: Bad place: The middle stall of a public restroom. It has more bacteria than those on either side, says Gerba’s research, likely because more people use it.

Good place: The stalls on either end. No matter what stall you choose, be wary of the floor, sink and water faucets – the worst carriers of bacteria, he says. Of course, the key here is washing your hands with soap and water afterward.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email