Published February 16, 2014
Holy ship! Earlier this month, not one, but two cruise ships cut their trips short due to illness outbreaks onboard.
It’s not entirely a shock. Cruise ships are floating petri dishes and it takes very few particles of the norovirus—a.k.a. the stomach flu—to make you heave, said Dr. Lola Stamm, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
But if you plan on staying ashore, what are some of the germiest hotspots you encounter in your daily life? (Did you know that harmful bacteria can easily migrate from the bathroom to your hand to a cutting board to your mouth. Use these smart antimicrobial strategies to Eliminate Germs in Your House.)
Here, six common culprits and what you can do to avoid sickness.
GERM HOTSPOT: WORK
Culprit #1: Your Desk
Office desks harbor hundreds of times more bacteria per square inch than do the toilet seats in those same buildings, according to University of Arizona research. Wipe down your phone, keyboard, monitor, and desk with disinfectant wipes at least once a day, Stamm says. And avoiding eating in front of your computer—food particles contribute to germs.
Culprit #2: The Break Room's Refrigerator Door
Even more disgusting than your co-worker’s stinky lunch are the germs hanging out on the refrigerator door. In a study by the American Dietetic Association, 44 percent of office refrigerators are cleaned on a monthly basis—22 percent are cleaned just once a year.
“Anything that leaks or spills can become a breeding ground for bacteria,” Stamm said. In a study published last year, half of the most commonly touched surfaces in an office—like the fridge—can become infected with a sick person’s germs by lunchtime. As if you needed another reminder to wash your mitts before eating. (Are you worried about bacteria? Here's a disinfect list for all the surprising places (and people) contagions clings to.)
GERM HOTSPOT: Public Restrooms
Culprit #1: Sinks
Your worst fears have been confirmed: A University of Colorado study identified 19 groups of bacteria, including staphylococcus aureus—the bug linked with antibiotic-resistant infections—in public restrooms. The sink may be the most germ-ridden surface of them all, according to a study by the non-profit NSF International, since the dampness allows microorganisms to survive.
Culprit #2: Hand Dryers
Rubbing your hands under a traditional dryer can boost the number of bacteria on your skin by up to 45 percent, a study in the Journal of Applied Microbiology found. Use paper towels to dry—and to open the door as you leave. (We have some high-priority pathogens we'd like you to meet—and, with our help, defeat: How to Beat 6 Everyday Infection Spreaders.)
GERM HOTSPOT: THE BANK
Culprit #1: ATM's
Considering that 95 percent of people wash their hands improperly, according to Michigan State University researchers, ATM users may deposit something else besides a few checks. One study found that each key on an ATM harbors an average of 1,200 germs, including E.coli and cold and flu viruses, University of Arizona researchers report.
Culprit #2: Cold, Hard Cash
Cash may carry some unexpected cling-ons: Each bill contains an average of 26,000 bacteria, according to Oxford University scientists. Stash hand sanitizer in your car and scrub off as soon as you leave the bank. (It's not just banks where germs lie. Check your home for these 4 Surprising Places Germs Hide.)
GERM HOTSPOT: THE GROCERY STORE
Culprit #1: Carts
You might want to wipe the handle down with sanitizing wipes—many stores offer them at the entrance. Why? Perhaps because “in addition to germs from other shoppers and kids, raw meat may leak on the cart,” Stamm said. Wrap meat packages in a plastic bag before putting them in your cart, too.
Culprit #2: Reusable Shopping Bags
They’re better for the environment, sure, but you could be lugging bacteria back and forth to the store, too. Ninety percent of shoppers don’t wash these bags regularly, according to another University of Arizona study. Researchers found coliform bacteria—from raw meat—and E.coli in nearly every reusable bag they sampled. Machine- or hand-wash your bags between uses, and use separate bags for meat and vegetables to avoid cross-contamination. (Discover the 6 Germiest Places You Touch Every Day.)
GERM HOTSPOT: HOTEL ROOMS
Culprit #1: TV Clickers and Light Switches
A University of Houston study found these two things to be the most contaminated items in hotel rooms. Pack your own wipes to clean off the surfaces you touch every day.
Culprit #2: Maid's Cleaning Cart
They’re packed with bacteria, meaning there’s a high risk of transferring those germs from one room to another. If you’re there for less than a few days, hang the Do Not Disturb sign to prevent acquiring bugs from other rooms during your stay. (Click here to learn about even more Hidden Germs Hiding in Your Hotel.)
GERM HOTSPOT: THE GYM
Culprit #1: Gym Weight Equipment
One study in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found cold-causing viruses on 63 percent of the gym equipment. Researchers also discovered that weight equipment was contaminated significantly more often than aerobic equipment—73 percent versus 51 percent. Even worse: Disinfecting twice a day didn't do anything to lower the virus count since plenty of people still use them between wipe-downs. Your move: Pack your own hand sanitizer to use between sets.
Culprit #2: Weight-lifting Gloves
Japanese researchers found that staph bacteria found on weights and machines bind to polyester, the material used in many gloves. When you power through a set, lower the weight, and wipe your eyes, nose, or mouth during your rest, you could become infected. Ditch the gloves—not only will you avoid some of the germs, you’ll strengthen your grip and forearms when you lift without them. Remember to be extra careful about keeping your fingers off of your face during your workout—wipe sweat with your forearm or clean towel.