How to Protect Yourself From Germs in Public

Cold and Flu in public transportation

Learn where germs lurk in public and how you can stop them from making you sick.

Many of us have a good grasp of how to keep our homes clean and germ-free. You wash your hands after touching raw meat, and when someone in your family is sick, you’re extra diligent with the disinfectant.

But disease-causing germs lurk outside the home, too. You can catch a bug from an elevator button you touched at work, the ATM you tapped on your way to the mall or the shopping cart handle at the store.

How germs can make you sick

When you touch a surface contaminated with a virus or bacteria, the germs can get on your hands. These germs can enter your body through one of these routes:

  • You touch your mouth, eyes or nose with your hand.
  • You handle food and then eat it.
  • The contaminated surface comes in direct contact with an open wound you have.

Then whether you get sick or not depends on a lot of factors, including:

  • The strength of your immune system
  • How virulent (strong) the germ is
  • How frequently you touch the contaminated surface
  • If you wash your hands before eating or touching your face

Where the germs lurk

Disease-causing germs can live on almost any surface. And if conditions are ideal for growth, they can linger on the surface for a while (this depends on many factors, like temperature, humidity, the type of surface and how often the surface is cleaned):

  • The flu virus can live on surfaces for two to eight hours.
  • Staph bacteria and MRSA can live on surfaces for hours or days.
  • Norovirus, which causes stomach flu, can survive on some surfaces for three to four weeks.

So where are the dirtiest places in public? Researchers in one study set out to answer that question. They collected hundreds of samples from surfaces and tested them for bacteria and biochemical markers (substances found in urine, sweat or blood that indicate disease). Some of the most germ-ridden places they found included:

  • Playground equipment
  • Bus armrests and railings
  • Shopping cart handles
  • Chair seats and armrests
  • Vending machine buttons
  • Escalator handrails
  • Pens on store counters
  • Public telephones
  • Elevator buttons

Just because a lot of germs were found on these surfaces does not mean having contact with them will make you ill. In fact, scientists know that some exposure to germs is probably healthy for most people. This study only measured the presence of germs in public, but it’s not known if germs in these locations were most likely to cause illnesses.

Protection in the palm of your hands

So how do you protect yourself from getting sick? Avoiding public places is unrealistic and disinfecting every surface before you touch it is not practical (though if sanitizing wipes are available, use them).

Following these four steps can greatly reduce your risk of illness:

1. Wash your hands regularly. Use warm water and scrub for at least 20 seconds and rinse them well. Dry your hands with a paper towel and use the paper towel to turn off the faucet and open or close the door. Then throw the paper towel away. Always wash your hands in the following situations.

     Before:

  • Eating
  • Preparing food
  • Caring for a wound
  • Giving someone medicine or caring for someone who is sick
  • Putting in contact lenses

After:

  • Preparing food
  • Using the bathroom
  • Caring for a person who is sick
  • Changing a diaper
  • Handling animals, their waste or their toys
  • Touching something soiled such as trash, cleaning cloth, sponge or a drain
  • Whenever they look dirty

2. Carry an alcohol-based hand gel or wipes with you at all times. Use it whenever soap and water aren’t available.

3. Keep your hands away from your face. Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth.

4. Cover any open wounds with a bandage.

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