Without even realizing it, we come into contact with germs, or microbes every day. These are tiny organisms that live all around us. They survive in the air, in soil and water, and on food, plants, and animals (including on and in our bodies). We’ve developed immunity to some forms of these germs, bacteria, and viruses but they have a variety of strains. So, the more we are exposed, the more immunity our bodies can develop. Some microbes are important in helping us to synthesize vitamins, maintain digestive and immune system health, and break down food into nutrients.
Ninety percent of you is composed of germ cells,” said Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology and immunology at NYU and author of “The Secret Life of Germs.”
He explained that while we are constantly in contact with germs, only a small minority will cause any harm.
“Of the 60,000 types of germs that people come in contact with on a daily basis … only about 1 [percent] to 2 percent are potentially dangerous to normal people with normal immunity,” he said.
Vaccines are available for germs that cause illnesses that can lead to serious complications, even death. For the others, becoming aware of what we are exposed to on a daily basis is essential in understanding how to prevent what is preventable.
Some high-traffic surfaces are:
- Doorknobs, car door handles
- ATMs and pin pads
- Computer keyboards
- Shopping Carts
- Purses and wallets
- Remote controls
- Bathroom doors and sinks
- Cutting boards
- Restaurant menus
High-traffic ultimately means the likelihood of coming into contact with germs is significant. People with every imaginable illness use these surfaces, but not everybody maintains a hand washing/cleansing regimen to avoid spreading the germs. A few infectious agents found are:
- Cold and flu viruses
- Staphylococcus (staph)
- Other drug-resistant bacteria
- E. Coli
- Helminths (parasites like tapeworms and roundworms)
- Protozoans (single-celled organisms, most of which are harmless, but also include diseases like Malaria)
Illnesses are also spread by healthy people that don’t maintain adequate personal hand hygiene. Consider that 92% of people say it’s important to wash hands after using the restroom, but only around 66% of people actually do. Bacteria from fecal matter can carry pathogens like E. coli, Shigella, Streptococcus, hepatitis A and E, Norovirus.
Cleaning high-traffic surfaces only once in a while isn’t enough. Some viruses, like the flu, can stay alive on surfaces for as long as 48 hours, according to the Centers for Disease Control. This becomes all too real when the Norovirus, also known as the “cruise ship virus,” spreads rapidly and makes hundreds of people incredibly sick.
It is a highly contagious virus that has symptoms resembling those of food poisoning or the flu. It can spread rapidly in a perfect environment like the dense, enclosed space of a cruise ship. But, any closed space such as planes, buses, or trains are susceptible.
Think of this, too- heading into a store, for example, you can easily come into contact with up to 30 surfaces like the door, shopping cart, items you’re browsing, the register counter, pin pad, your purse or wallet, money, all within a few minutes, all with their own combination of germs. And, how often do we cough, sneeze, play with pets, eat finger foods, and use unclean phones without a thought to what we’re passing on? You can’t protect against everything, and some exposure is important to increase immunity; increasing awareness and better hygiene helps everyone.
Best bet- regularly clean high traffic surfaces around your home and workplace. When out and about, stay conscious of what you’re touching, and if you can, use the back of your hand to activate automatic door opening buttons, your knuckles to press pin pad and elevator buttons, avoid touching counters, etc. Keep a pack of wet wipes in your bag or car (and even your office desk) to clean your hands if you aren’t able to wash them. But, the best thing you can do to avoid spreading illness or getting sick, is to wash your hands with the basics: soap and water.