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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Swipe away germs: Keep your phone’s screen clean to stop spread of illnesses

It’s a flu season motto: Wash your hands often to avoid getting sick and spreading germs.

What about that smartphone in constant contact with your hands? Yeah, you should probably give that a wipe down at least once a day.

At a shop or restaurant, you also might consider whether to let someone touch your phone to scan a bar code. Spokane resident Maggie Smith, 61, had those exact thoughts recently when store cashiers reached for retailers’ coupons on her smartphone.

“I arrive at the counter, phone in hand, coupon ready to scan,” Smith said. “It seems to be common practice now for the clerk to grab my phone to scan the coupon or flip through pages on the phone to find further coupons.”

She tried offering to hold her phone, but the response was frustration or anger, Smith added. “I put that phone next to my face, my ear, my mouth. I have no desire to add their germs or the germs they transferred from another customer’s phone to me.”

Having that awareness is prudent, said Spokane Regional Health District spokeswoman Kelli Hawkins. During cold and flu season, the agency offers tips that include getting the flu shot and good hygiene practices.

“You really have to treat your phone like any surface you come into contact with,” Hawkins said. “You also touched the grocery cart or the door, so you’re constantly in contact with different germs.

“Your phone – because you’re holding it – is going to be another surface that you’re going to be transferring germs back and forth. We put our phones up to sensitive areas, up to our face where your mouth, eyes and nose are, so it’s definitely worth the concern.”

It might help to do a quick wipe down of your smartphone once a day with an antibacterial wipe, Hawkins said.

“Wipes are tricky,” she said. “You don’t want to overuse wipes because they’re just a one-time-use item. If you use it on multiple surfaces, then you’re transferring germs again from one surface to another.”

Some experts recommend a home solution of 60% water and 40% rubbing alcohol placed on a microfiber cloth to wipe down a smartphone. This helps avoid damage to the screen, but don’t spray the mixture directly onto your phone.

Smartphones in our grasp are checked about 47 times a day, according to a survey by Deloitte. University of Arizona researchers have found that cellphones carry 10 times more bacteria than most toilet seats, and other studies have detected other nasty organisms.

To avoid spreading germs or getting sick from contact with others, additional good practices include regular handwashing with soap for 20 seconds, rinsing hands and drying them with a towel, Hawkins added.

And make sure you’re not sharing food, as well as that phone. If you’re ill and can work from home or take sick leave, don’t venture out until your health gets better.

“Really, it’s about your hands, mouth, nose and eyes, so when you’re in contact with those different surfaces, whether it’s opening doors, a stair rail or your phone, then you’re not touching your eyes, face and nose,” Hawkins said.

“It’s hard, but it’s just being cognizant of where you’re putting your hands.”

The agency lists advisories about seasonal influenza. By early January this flu season, Spokane County had 95 influenza hospitalizations reported. The flu season typically runs from early October through the end of May.

Statewide, a total of 19 influenza deaths were reported as of Dec. 28, with one of those in Spokane County. By early January a year ago, there were 127 hospitalizations and six deaths in Spokane County.

The main way that influenza viruses are spread is person to person by “droplet spread,” SRHD says. Droplets from a cough or sneeze of an infected person are propelled through the air and deposited on the mouth, nose or eyes of people nearby.

“Influenza viruses may also be spread when a person touches respiratory droplets on an object and then touches their mouth, nose or eyes before washing their hands,” the agency says.

SRHD recommends that the best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu vaccine each year. Within two weeks of vaccination, antibodies develop that protect against influenza virus infection. There are several flu vaccine options for the 2019-2020 flu season.

If you are sick, make sure to cover your nose and mouth during a sneeze with a sleeve, elbow or tissue, Hawkins said. When a sneeze accidentally reaches the hands, you should wash them right away before handling your phone or other surfaces.

And as a courtesy, it wouldn’t hurt to let others know if you’re not feeling well. That includes a store clerk. “Letting them know, ‘I am sick, and I’ve been talking on my phone. If you’d like, I can handle my phone and run it by the scanner for you,’ and give them that option,” she said.

“I think it falls into the same category of making sure you cover your mouth when you sneeze.”

Smith considers herself as healthy. She listens to best practices to stay that way during cold and flu season. And that’s also why she tries to hang onto her phone in the store.

“Before you know it, they’ve grabbed the phone, and I’m just thinking, ‘OK I wash my hands, I practice good hygiene, but then here I’m going to put my phone next to my face.’ With all the talk about flu and germs, it’s kind of disgusting.

“You’ve got your hands all over your phone, and then somebody else takes your phone, and then the next place your phone goes is right next to your face and right next to your mouth.”

She has tried to use alcohol wipes to clean her smartphone. “I’ve even had people grab my phone at a fast food place, and I wondered, ‘Are you going to go back and handle food?’ ”

Smith works in a public building where it’s also typical in a restroom stall to hear another person next door talking on a cellphone. “Another reason not to let anybody touch your phone,” Smith said.

“I’m not a germaphobe; I don’t want to make it sound like I am. But it’s just being realistic. I want to stay healthy.”

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