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The basics of germ protection

Bryn Mawr Hospital July 6, 2017 General Wellness By Damaris Wessel, DO

Q: After hearing so much about infectious diseases in the news, I’ve become a bit of a germaphobe, constantly wiping things down and not wanting to touch things that others have touched. Am I taking this too far?

When it comes to cleanliness, you should strive to be germ-aware rather than germaphobic. Being germ-aware simply means being careful and alert, but not to the point of feeling anxious about daily living and going about in public places.

Let’s first define “germs,” a loose term referring to bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa. These are all microorganisms that live in the air, food, water, plants and animals—as well as in humans. In fact, we are home to hundreds of trillions of germs. Humans need germs, and not all germs are bad. Their purpose is to protect us from things like skin infections and parasites. (Take Lactobacillus acidophilus, for example, a type of “good” bacteria needed for a healthy gut.)

Types of germs that cause concern

What causes fear and concern for most people is contagious disease and infection, transmitted directly or indirectly from person to person. Some diseases are spread when an infected person coughs and sneezes, and respiratory droplets make their way to another person’s nose or mouth. Or when an infected person touches a door handle and another person then touches the handle. While anyone can be infected like this, this method of transmission is even more common among people living in tight quarters, such as college students. Examples of infections that are spread this way include:

Other infections, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), are spread via skin-to-skin contact, or by touching something that was touched by an infected person. MRSA is a common concern in health care settings, but also in gym locker rooms and amongst athletes participating in contact sports. MRSA (pronounced merr-suh) is a particularly difficult to treat infection that has become resistant to antibiotics that are usually used to treat staph infections.

Escherichia coli, commonly known as E. coli, are another type of bacteria that live in human and animal digestive tracts. These bacteria are passed from fecal (stool, bowel waste) to oral, commonly when an infected person doesn’t wash hands well after using the bathroom and then touches something else. E. coli is also transmitted via contaminated food, particularly meat that has not been cooked thoroughly enough, and by way of fruits and vegetables that have been touched by an infected person, or have touched infected animal feces in some way. It is also possible to get E. coli by swallowing contaminated water, such as pool water that has not been sufficiently treated with chlorine.

How to protect yourself from the ‘germiest’ objects around you

As we head into the summer travel season, keep your eyes open to the places where you’re most likely to be exposed, and be prepared to wipe, wash and shower as needed.

Aside from the usual kitchen sponges, cutting boards, and toilet handles, here are some of the germiest items you’ll come in contact with:

  • Airplane armrests and seatback pockets – A 2014 study* revealed that MRSA can live on airplane surfaces for up to a week: seven days on seat pockets, six days on arm rests, and five days on plastic trays and window shades. E. coli held on for four days on seat pockets and three days on arm rests.
  • Cell phones, keyboards, touch screens – Your own mobile device can be a source of contamination, considering all the things you touch in your environment and then you touch the screen of your device. Also think about when you’re placing your order via touchscreen at the sandwich place, or checking in via touchscreen at the airport.
  • Cash – Thousands of bacteria live on your bills. Some of these are harmless while others can lead to infection. Live flu virus has been found to survive on cash for up to 17 days.† Other types of bacteria, including MRSA, can live on just about anything for at least 48 hours.

Swimming pools, hot tubs and public shower areas are also potential sources of contamination. Showers and other wet areas around pools harbor bacteria that can enter your body through a cut or scrape in your skin. In swimming pools, and in spite of chlorination, there are instances where fecal matter (particularly from young children wearing diapers) makes its way into the water. If you accidentally gulp contaminated water, you can get sick from it. Water also becomes contaminated by oils and lotions people put on their bodies. Ingredients from these products interact with chlorine, creating new irritants and requiring more chlorine to do the job, leaving less chlorine available to kill germs.

The three most important things you can do about germs

Although the idea of so many germs all around us can be overwhelming, the basics of prevention and care are quite simple.

  1. Keep your hands clean. Wash hands with soap and water after using the bathroom. Wash hands or use hand-sanitizer after you’ve been touching or handling objects that many other hands have touched. Familiarize yourself with proper handwashing technique and how to properly use hand-sanitizer.
  2. Get vaccinated. Make sure you’re protected against flu, chicken pox, meningitis, and other communicable diseases. Talk to your doctor about making sure you’re up to date on immunizations.
  3. Take precautions with food and water. Use a separate cutting board for fruits and vegetables vs. meats. Keep kitchen surface areas clean with disinfectant. Wipe down toilet handles and sink knobs. Shower before swimming, and careful not to gulp swimming pool water.

As you’re taking these simple precautions and teaching your kids to do the same, keep in mind the idea is to be aware of germs—not afraid of them.

* American Society for Microbiology. Harmful bacteria can linger on airplane seat-back pockets, armrests for days. ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 May 2014.
† Thomas Y, Vogel G, Wunderli W, et al. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2008 May;74(10):3002-7.