A Non-Neurotic Guide to Germs

You don't have to freak out about all the viruses and bacteria in your home. Follow our sensible guide -- and relax a little!
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The Truth About Germs

One day not long ago, a good friend stopped by. We sat at my kitchen counter with mugs of green tea and I leaned toward her, eager to catch up. As we started chatting, she sneezed and pulled some tissues out of her purse. "Sorry," she said, blowing her nose several times. "I have a yucky cold." I made the right sympathetic noises, but inside I recoiled a little. I'm a longtime health writer, so I know the nasty stats: You spew jillions of viruses with each cough or sneeze, and I was sitting well within the splash zone. To make matters worse, my whole family -- me, my husband, our two teenage sons -- had slogged through a headachy, sniffly sneeze-fest just weeks earlier and we were finally feeling better. I so, so, so did not want us all to get sick again.

As we talked I managed to push the germ issue to the back of my mind. Then, lost in a story about her son, my friend began absentmindedly wiping the kitchen counter with her wad of soiled tissues. Horrified, I watched her hand draw lazy loops across the white tiles. I was so distracted that when she looked into my eyes and said, "Do you know what I mean?" I had no idea what she was talking about. For the rest of our visit, my attention was divided: half on our conversation, half on the viruses I could practically see multiplying on my countertop.

The second I closed the front door behind her I flew into hazmat mode, spraying and respraying the counter with a product that says it "kills 99.9 percent of bacteria!" Of course, colds are caused by viruses, and the label made no promises about them, but whatever. Wiping up made me feel better. Still, a part of me wondered: Had I over-reacted? I'm not a total germaphobe, but during cold and flu season I can get a little crazy. Am I right to worry -- or am I just neurotic? To find out I decided to do some research on germ management. And I'm glad I did. After reading a number of scientific studies and chatting up a handful of experts, I realized there's no need to disinfect your doorknobs (or anything else) daily. Turns out, a handful of common-sense precautions can keep you and your family from getting sick.

Don't stress about doorknobs and sinks.

We've all read the creepy stats about the swarms of germs on surfaces that get touched the most at home. But under normal circumstances, there's no reason to treat them as if they were coated in swine flu virus. "Germs are ubiquitous, but fewer than 1 percent of them cause disease, and many actually keep us healthy," says Abigail Salyers, PhD, professor of microbiology at the University of Illinois in Urbana. "My kitchen sink is probably covered with bacteria, but I could lick it if I had to and wouldn't worry about it." Gross as that sounds, it's a good point. Not only are most bugs benign, but it typically takes thousands, or even millions, of the bad ones to make you sick, Dr. Salyers says. My new approach: Wipe down household surfaces when they're visibly grubby, sticky, or whenever someone has a contagious illness. Fun fact: Viruses survive longer on hard surfaces, so concentrate your cleaning efforts on those.

Step it up if someone in the house is sick.

If your child or spouse is sneezing, coughing, or vomiting, encourage them to stay mostly in their bedrooms to help contain the bad bugs, suggests Charles Gerba, PhD, a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona. Keep in mind that flu viruses can live on household surfaces for two to eight hours or more. Don't share towels, since bacteria can multiply in the damp folds, and wash sick people's linens separately in hot water with a detergent containing bleach, suggests Elaine Larson, PhD, professor in the School of Nursing at Columbia University. "You don't need to go crazy disinfecting every surface, though," she says. I was relieved to hear that. Even so, when my kids are sick, I do wash my hands. A lot.

Get over antibacterial addiction.

The word "antibacterial" sounds wonderfully reassuring. It makes me feel like I'm deploying the ninja warriors of the germ-fighting world -- and in some ways it's true. Many antibacterial soaps, laundry and dish detergents, and cleaning products contain triclosan, a substance that can kill or slow the growth of many bacteria, including really nasty ones like E. coli, strep, and staph. But most studies have shown that for everyday use, regular soaps and cleaners are just as effective, probably because the surfactants effectively break bacteria's hold on most surfaces -- including skin -- and water rinses them down the drain.

Besides, there may be drawbacks to using triclosan, warns Rebecca Sutton, PhD, an environmental chemist and senior scientist at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. "Animal studies suggest that it may affect thyroid and sex hormones and it's been found in urine and breast milk," she says. Some research also indicates it might contribute to antibiotic resistance. For me, that's reason enough to avoid it -- and since it's one of the few substances that must be listed on the label of any cleaning product, that's easy to do. I'm sticking with the same thing Dr. Sutton and other germ experts say they use for most cleaning chores: plain soap and water.

Use bleach sparingly.

I was surprised when I read this and asked Dr. Sutton to explain. "The spray-and-wipe approach with bleach isn't supereffective at killing germs," she says. "You really need to saturate the surface and leave it on for 10 minutes. Most of us don't do that." Even if we did, it wouldn't be ideal. Bleach can trigger asthma in susceptible people, and it might cause asthma if you use it often enough. The Association of Occupational Environmental Clinics recently listed it as an "asthmagen," a chemical that can trigger asthma in someone who's never had it.

Still, it makes sense to use diluted bleach on toilets and bathroom countertops if someone in the house has a bad stomach bug, says Dr. Gerba, who has made a name for himself by studying the number of germs on various surfaces. (Thanks to his research, we now know that fecal bacteria like E. coli can ride into our homes on the bottoms of our handbags. Gross!) "Some gastrointestinal bugs, such as norovirus, are super-contagious and can spread through the household like wildfire," he says. And it takes an unusually low number of some types of gut bugs to make you sick. For instance, just 100 particles of norovirus, the curse of cruise-ship passengers, can set off symptoms. For that reason, I'm keeping some bleach on hand, but I'll be sure to open the windows when I use it.

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