Preventing the Spread of Germs

20 Things That Can Get You Sick, Quick

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

In 1998, scientists settled on a startling conclusion. Based on extensive research, they estimated that, at that time, our world was home to five million trillion trillion bacteria. (For reference, that’s a five with 30 zeros.)

Now, almost 20 years later, it’s only likely that number has increased. And according to M. Elizabeth Swenor, D.O., functional medicine physician at Henry Ford Health System, there are some everyday items that are far more susceptible to spreading it.

Let’s take a look at 20 things that can get you sick, quick, along with the ways to avoid them.

  1. Bed sheets. Believe it or not, your bed sheets are a breeding ground for dust mites. They can live, die and reproduce in your bed—feasting on your dead skin cells. As they do, they can affect your allergies and lower your immune system. Tip: Wash your sheets at least once a week in hot, soapy water.
  1. Pillows. You’d never lie down on a pile of germs. Or would you? Pillows have been proven to harbor bacteria, even when they have a pillowcase on them. In fact, Dr. Swenor estimates that pillows (and mattresses) can harbor up to 10 percent of their weight in dust mites. Tip: Wash your pillows at least once a year in hot, soapy water. Or, invest in new ones.
  1. Toothbrushes. You naturally have bacteria in your mouth. (Don’t worry, everyone does.) And if you leave your toothbrush out in the open, you’re exposing it to even more. Tip: Rinse your toothbrush before and after every use. Try not to let the tip of the toothpaste touch your toothbrush. Keep it in a dry, covered place. Then, get a new one every three months, or after you’ve been sick.
  1. Cosmetics. When it comes to mascara, eye shadow, lip gloss and makeup brushes, you double dip every day. Eventually, it can contaminate the product, which could lead to an infection. Tip: Replace your makeup often. (Find out just how often here.)
  1. Door knobs. Think about how many hands have touched that door before yours… Tip: When possible, pull your sleeve down around your hand and open the door that way. When you’re in a public bathroom, grab an extra paper towel or piece of toilet paper to touch the door with.
  1. Light switches. How many times do you turn the lights on and off in a day? In a week? Month? Or even year? Tip: Once a week, give your light switches a quick swipe with an antibacterial wipe.
  1. Refrigerator handles. You pull out the bacon to make breakfast. You pull out the lunch meat to make a sandwich. You pull out the chicken to make dinner. But, how often do you wash your hands before you put it back? If you don’t do it every time, your refrigerator handles could be contaminated with the same bacteria as raw meat. Tip: Once a week, wipe down your refrigerator handles.
  1. Kitchen sponges. You think you’re cleaning your dishes, but you might just be transferring bacteria from one plate to another. Tip: Before you use it, microwave your kitchen sponge for 60 seconds.
  1. Salt and pepper shakers. You always touch them, but you never clean them. You may even touch them while you’re cooking, which could transfer bacteria from raw meat to your shakers. Tip: Before dinner, wipe down your salt and pepper shakers.
  1. Buffets. Most buffets have a giant “sneeze guard” that’s supposed to protect food from germs. But, according to Dr. Swenor, they can actually have the opposite effect. In fact, instead of keeping germs out, they can trap bacteria in. Tip: Plan to eat at a buffet when the food is first put out, which is usually around noon and then again at 5 p.m.
  1. Fast food trays. Consider this: The tray that holds your food is usually washed once a week, with a dirty rag. Tip: Get your food to go.
  1. Water pitchers. When you need a refill at a restaurant, a waiter will often bring a water pitcher. These pitchers are used to pour water all day, and they’re usually only cleaned at the end of the night. Tip: It’s good to drink water and stay hydrated, just make sure the pitcher doesn’t touch the rim of your glass when it’s being refilled.
  1. Vending machines. Whether it’s for chocolate or chips, vending machines are a one stop shop for snackers everywhere. It takes just a few seconds to get your food, but the buttons could have bacteria that’s built up over years. Tip: Carry a healthy snack with you, whenever you think you’ll need one.
  1. Caramel apples. The combination of a wooden stick and natural apple juice can create a bacteria called Listeria, which can cause symptoms similar to food poisoning. Tip: Buy caramel apples without a stick, or buy them refrigerated.
  1. Out-of-season produce. When your favorite fruits and veggies are out of season, they travel a long way to get to you. By the time they get to the supermarket’s shelf, a lot of their disease-fighting nutrients have deteriorated, and the food isn’t as healthy as when it was harvested. Tip: Try to buy local produce. If it’s out of season, buy frozen food—which is almost always harvested at its peak.
  1. Grocery carts. A study at the University of Arizona showed almost 100 percent of grocery carts are contaminated with E. coli. As you pick up raw food, bacteria can spread from your hands to the handle and from the product to the cart. Tip: In the winter, keep your gloves on (and wash them regularly). In all of the other seasons, wipe the handle with an antibacterial wipe (many store have them) if it’s available and be sure to bag your raw food to reduce the risk.
  1. Smartphones. Most of the time, your phone goes wherever you go, including the bathroom. Then, it touches your hands and your face on a daily basis. Tip: Keep antibacterial wipes in your nightstand, and give your phone a quick clean before bed.
  1. Keyboards. Do you wash your hands every time you cough? Or sneeze? Or snack? Or shake hands? Your hands touch your keyboard all day, every day, and despite your best efforts, they aren’t always clean. That means your keyboard isn’t, either. Tip: Put a dab of isopropyl alcohol on a paper towel and a cotton swab. Use the paper towel to wipe your keyboard, and the cotton swab to get between the keys.
  1. Parking meters. They’re exposed to all of the elements and all of the residents. Tip: If the city has smart meters installed, pay with an app instead of cash.
  1. Money. The smaller the value, the dirtier it can be. Bills like the $20, $10, $5 and $1 and pocket change are used far more often, which means they change hands more frequently. Tip: Whenever possible, pay with your debit or credit card.

Of course, there’s no way to avoid exposure to germs all together. One of the best ways to avoid getting sick and spreading germs is still by thoroughly washing your hands with plain soap and running water throughout the day. If you’re not near a sink and can’t wash your hands, using alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol is recommended.

Need help squashing your sickness? Find primary care that fits your schedule at Henry Ford. Learn more about our convenient, same-day care options.

Dr. M. Elizabeth Swenor practices functional medicine at Henry Ford Medical Center – Novi.

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