As the temperatures dip and winter is upon us, cold and flu season enters full swing. When we start to think about protecting ourselves from all the various bacteria and viruses out there, we may consider how, exactly, they are reaching us. For some people, it’s not a huge leap: Health care workers, teachers, and daycare providers are frequently surrounded by coughs and sneezes. But what about the rest of us?
According to new research, it seems that we are all surrounded by germs pretty much wherever we go. A study at the University of Colorado in Boulder found that public restrooms were a breeding ground for a whole range of bacteria.1 The scientists brought genetic sequencing tools to six men’s restrooms and six women’s restrooms. After examining the doors, water faucet handles, soap dispensers, toilets, and floors, they found 19 different strains of bacteria present.
This is hardly surprising, but what is somewhat eyebrow raising is that the type of germs taking up residence in each particular area of the bathroom were sometimes specific to that location. Bacteria commonly found on the skin, such as Staphylococcus aureus were mainly concentrated on the doorknobs, soap dispensers, and faucet handles we touch while there. Likewise, the toilets tested had germs that come from feces, and the floors were found to harbor bacteria that lives in soil, as well as a variety of other germs. When all is said and done, though, the germs most frequently discovered on every surface were those that came from skin.
Again, none of this is particularly surprising, considering we all expect public bathrooms to be on the germy side. However, there may be some other, less obvious, surfaces you come into contact with on a regular basis that are havens for bacteria as well. Taking a break from holiday shopping to grab a bite to eat in the food court? Those tables are covered in germs, especially food-associated bugs such as E. coli.2 And don’t bother flagging down a cleaning worker to wipe the table down — the cloths they use offer no disinfectant. They actually can make the situation worse by spreading bacteria from one table to the next. Yum!
As you move up and down the floors on the escalators, try not to touch the handrails. They, too, are full of germs. Analysis of a handrail has found urine, mucus, feces, E. coli, and blood to be present. When you stop to get more money from the ATM, you can’t really avoid touching the machine, but you may want to press the buttons with your knuckles if you are dexterous enough. That’s because a Chinese study found that each button was the source of an average of 1,200 germs. The biggest culprit was the “enter” key, since everyone needs that during a transaction.
Another major source of germs that affects all of us is our very own cell phones. A recent study at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Queen Mary, University of London discovered that bacteria were thriving on 92 percent of cell phones.3 The researchers took this one step further and tested the owners’ hands, and 82 percent of them had germs present. Obviously, the dirty hands are the source of most of the bacteria that ended up on the phones.
Short of never leaving the house again, what’s a person to do? Start by washing your hands regularly, just using good, old-fashioned soap and water. No need to use antibacterial disinfectants; in fact, they do more harm than good and can create resistant germs that are tougher to kill. Try not to touch your face either, since that’s the main way we transmit most bacteria into our bodies.
You can also boost your immunity, pumping up your ability to fight infection by invading microorganisms, with the regular use herbal immune boosters. Key ingredients would include Echinacea, which is a sort of natural antibiotic; Pau d’arco, which can kill viruses and has a healing effect on the entire body; and Suma, which can prevent colds and flus and speed healing. If you know you are going to be exposed to more germs than usual (shopping at the mall, getting on an airplane, etc.), arm yourself by taking an immune tonic daily for the week before. That will hopefully be just what your body needs to keep you protected from the army of bacterial invaders we just cannot avoid. And if you do get sick, down natural antipathogens as fast as you can to take down your infection load as quickly as possible.
1 Flores, Gilberto E.; Bates, Scott T.; Knights, Dan; et al. “Microbial Biogeography of Public Restroom Surfaces.” PLoS One. 23 November 2011. PLoS. 5 December 2011. <http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0028132>.
2 Wira Dineen, Carl. “The 8 germiest places in the mall.” CNN Health. 26 November 2011. Cable News Network. 5 December 2011. <http://www.cnn.com/2011/11/25/health/germiest-places-mall/index.html?hpt=he_c2>.
3 Locke, Tim. “Nasty Bugs Lurking on Your Cell Phone.” WebMD. 14 October 2011. WebMD, LLC. 5 December 2011. <http://www.webmd.com/news/20111014/nasty-bugs-lurking-on-your-cell-phone>.