Now that we've entered (and suffered through) flu season, you're probably upping your germ-fighting game because you know that the moment someone on your floor gets sick, everyone else is next. Maybe you’re washing your hands more often or purposely avoiding those who might be getting sick, but do you know about the disturbing number of germs that lurk in some of your most simple habits?
We spoke with Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, executive vice president of the health and wellness platform Sharecare, about the icky topic, and she doled out some seriously useful advice to help you steer clear of bacteria while not having to go sterilization crazy. If you’re wondering just how easy it is to spread germs, check out these habits that you probably do every day!
1. Talking on your cellphone
At some point or another, you've probably heard a news report that suggests your cellphone is dirtier than a toilet. Given how attached we are to our mobile devices, it's not surprising that these reports have some truth to them.
Dr. Gillespie, who is also an emergency physician at Emory University Hospital, advises wiping your cellphone down regularly with an alcohol or Lysol towelette. "Cell phones can get really gross," she says. "Think of all the places you set your phone down –the restaurant table, a taxi cab seat– and then think of how often you put it up to your face and mouth!”
So next time you’re in a public space, you might want to think twice about putting your phone down on any old surface!
2. Using public pens
When you pay for a meal at a restaurant, signing your name on the receipt is almost second nature. The moment the piece of paper and pen are placed in front of you, you know what to do, which is probably why the cleanliness factor never crosses your mind.
If 50 people before you had used the pen, it's almost as if you've shaken hands with every one of them. Dr. Gillespie suggests carrying your own pen around with you and making a habit of using it at stores, restaurants and banks.
Though a public pen is not home to one specific germ, using it is a surefire way of increasing your risk of catching the common cold. Who knows if the people before you were wiping their noses with their hands or coughing into them?
3. Doing the dishes
You would think that the kitchen sink is free of germs since, after all, it's where cleaning takes place, right? Wrong. Surprisingly, the kitchen harbors more germs than any other room in the home, and it's your trusty sponge that remains one of the biggest culprits. After much repeated use, sponges become clogged with bacteria like E.coli and salmonella.
So when you think you're cleaning your favorite mug, you could really be spreading germs that may have belonged to any of your roommates, or worse, germs that stem from contact with raw meat or eggs. The next time you go to do the dishes, think back to the last time you replaced it. If your sponge is more than a few weeks old or looks like it's falling apart, toss it.
Dr. Gillespie also advises keeping two sponges for different purposes. "Sinks themselves can get really dirty, so don't wash your dishes with the same sponge you wiped the sink down with," she says. "Keep one for food-carrying products and another for cleaning the actual sink."
For further defense against bacteria, Dr. Gillespie says that popping your sponge in the microwave works as well. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nuking a wet sponge for just 60 seconds can decrease bacteria by 100 percent.
4. Handling credit cards and cash
While you can bring your own pen to the store to avoid sharing the same one with tons of shoppers, there's really no good way to get out of touching questionably dirty money and swiping your credit cards through PIN pad machines. Dr. Gillespie says the best thing you can do is to use hand sanitizer right afterwards so you don't forget and end up touching your face or eating with dirty hands.
Although washing your hands is preferable, realistically you're not going to run to the bathroom every time you touch something that's potentially filthy. Of course, not everyone is going to get into the habit of Purelling after every transaction, so just be mindful of what your hands last touched until they’re clean.
5. Serving yourself food at the dining hall
If you see food servers at your dining hall wearing gloves and washing their hands often, you would think you're in the clear from germs, right? Not necessarily, it turns out, especially if your dining hall is buffet style.
If you just finished your plate of food and want to go back for more, it's smartest to get a new plate. By returning to the salad bar and accidentally touching the serving utensil to the plate you've already eaten off of, you are spreading your germs to anyone else who will later use that utensil. For the benefit of others, grab a new plate if you go back for seconds.
Dr. Gillespie says that during flu season, she will grab a napkin and use it to hold the serving utensils. "It may seem neurotic, but it's kept me from getting sick [when everyone else is]," she says.
As another precaution, Dr. Gillespie says that whenever food is being served in a shared environment, it's best to get in the habit of either washing your hands or using hand sanitizer before eating.
6. Using gym equipment
Because of all the sweating that goes on, the gym can be considered a pretty gross place to begin with even before you factor in the germs. But if you think of all the nasty sicknesses you can catch from gym equipment, like the stomach flu or MRSA (which causes tough-to-treat infections), you may start to consider it just downright scary.
As a germ-fighting tactic, many gyms have placed hand sanitizer and wipe dispensers around their facilities. Some even hang signs on the walls asking gym-goers to wipe down machines after they're done using them, but there's really no way of knowing if your equipment was cleaned before you hop on.
Dr. Gillespie recommends wiping down your equipment before using it because not everyone remembers to clean their machines, even if they had intended to. "Be sure to let [your] equipment air-dry, as that gets rid of the germs best," she says.
While you don't want drive yourself crazy and start being that person who sprays Lysol on everything in sight, it's good to be aware of where germs hide and how easily they spread. These germ-infested habits can be worrisome, but there’s no need to lose sleep over them. As long as you keep Dr. Gillespie’s tips in mind, you should have nothing to fear when it comes to these pesky germs!