seem to have moved toward the top of the national worry list.
Millions buy antibacterial soaps and cleansers, air purifiers,
and even face masks. Some people wonder if it’s safe to
share a telephone, headrest, yoga mat, or exercise equipment,
ride in a plane or bus, or touch an ATM machine. Feeding these
concerns are a lot of busy marketers. Ads portray a dangerous
world, seething with microbes. Companies that make disinfectants
warn you that germs will move into your new home faster than
you can. Toy companies impregnate products with germ-fighting
chemicals. You can buy antibacterial cloths, towels, sheets,
and mops equipped for germ warfare.
viruses, and other pathogens can sicken and even kill people,
of course. Yet when it comes to fighting germs at home or
on your person, keep a cool head. “Germs,” meaning
microorganisms, are everywhere on earth and, in fact, in and
on us. Trillions of bacteria reside on our skin and in our
mouths, noses, intestines, and elsewhere—resident flora,
as they are called. Ordinarily, they are not a problem, or
can be kept at bay by basic hygiene. Some, like intestinal
flora, even perform vital functions—preventing pathogens
from “colonizing” the digestive tract, for instance.
Exposure to microbes is actually necessary for the development
of a mature immune system.
other types of microbes, called transient flora, can indeed
be classified as contaminants, but they are usually not troublesome
either. Their life span on the skin is brief, and healthy
immune systems deal with them efficiently. Microorganisms
are natural inhabitants of our habitat—or we of theirs
(they got here first). An infant meets bacteria in its mother’s
birth canal before it even begins to breathe the air. Microbes
are our lifelong companions, for better or worse. Humans could
not survive for long in a germfree environment.
are many ways to defend yourself against harmful microorganisms.
A healthy immune system is the best defense. A public health
system that ensures safe drinking water and proper disposal
of sewage is another. Clean habits are still another: keeping
the kitchen and bathroom clean, washing clothes, bathing or
showering at reasonable intervals, brushing and flossing teeth
to remove decay-causing bacteria.
are answers to some questions you may have about germs.
the single most important way to prevent the transmission
of infectious organisms?
Wash your hands often—before eating; before and after
handling food, particularly raw meat or fish; after having
sex; before putting in contact lenses or treating a wound;
after using the toilet; after sneezing, coughing, or blowing
your nose (particularly when you have a cold); after changing
a diaper; after playing with a pet or cleaning a litter box;
and after gardening or any other task that leaves hands grimy.
Covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze is another
should you wash your hands?
Thoroughly, with soap and water. Any kind of soap is fine.
Warm water cuts through oil on your hands faster, but cold
water will also do the job. Rub your hands with soap and water
for at least 15 seconds to loosen germs and dirt, rinse all
soap away, then dry well. Soap and water don’t actually
kill microorganisms, but they create a slippery environment
so that the critters slide off.
antiseptic and antibacterial products better?
Not under normal household circumstances. Soaps with triclosan
and other antiseptics do kill or inhibit bacteria, but the
result is essentially the same as with regular soap. Studies
have found no additional benefit from using these products.
Besides being overkill, they are more likely to cause skin
irritations than plain soap. The widespread use of antibacterial
products may also encourage the development of drug-resistant
bacteria. The only place where antiseptic/antibacterial cleaners
are advised is in a hospital or similar setting.
you use antibacterial sponges and cleansers in the kitchen?
They aren’t necessary. Nothing can take the place of
cleanliness—frequent washing of kitchen counters and
utensils, particularly any that have come in contact with
raw meat, and washing and/or replacing sponges and dishcloths
often. An antibacterial sponge will not disinfect a countertop,
and the sponge will eventually get dirty. Plain soap or detergent
is just as effective in the kitchen as an antibacterial product.
it okay to use alcohol hand sanitizers?
When you don’t have access to a sink, alcohol gels and
wipes are convenient. The alcohol kills most bacteria and
viruses, but unlike antibacterial soaps, it can’t promote
resistant bacteria. However, alcohol is very drying to the
skin, and washing with plain soap and water is just as effective
at getting rid of germs. If you do use one of these gels,
make sure it contains at least 60% alcohol; less is not effective.
about antibacterial toys, mops, phone-guards, etc.?
There’s no evidence that household products impregnated
with antibacterial chemicals reduce the risk of infections.
The EPA has ordered some marketers of such products to stop
making misleading claims about health benefits. The danger
is that if people imagine that products are “self-sanitizing,”
they’ll dispense with regular hygiene—that is,
soap and water—to prevent the transmission of germs.
about anti-germ devices for use in planes?
You don’t need them. There is an increased risk of catching
a cold when flying. People often blame this on poor ventilation,
especially the recirculation of cabin air, but studies have
found that the infection rate is the same in planes that use
100% fresh air for ventilation and those that use recirculated
cabin air (which is filtered). Simple human proximity is the
real culprit. If you get sick after a plane trip, it’s
usually because you sat within a few feet of someone who was
sneezing or coughing, or you touched an object that a sick
person recently handled or coughed on and then you touched
your mouth or nose. Thus, frequent flyers should be frequent
hand washers. Special covers for headrests, pillows, and seats
in the planes, most air filters or purifiers (for the plane
or home), and various anti-germ devices advertised in catalogues
and on the Internet serve little or no health purpose.
about face masks?
There’s no evidence that wearing a mask made of paper,
gauze, or cotton will protect you against infections in a
plane or elsewhere. These are essentially worthless, since
viruses and bacteria are small enough to pass through any
ordinary weave. Masks designed for hospital use, such as the
N-95, are more effective, but they won’t block all viruses.
Moreover, it takes training to properly fit and handle a hospital
mask; if it does trap infectious organisms, you can become
infected while handling it.
gym equipment and exercise mats spread germs?
Microbes thrive in the warm, damp environments found in many
gyms, health clubs, and pools. But facilities that are properly
cleaned and disinfected pose little serious risk, especially
if you shower after working out, or at least wash your hands
before touching food or your face. Worries about germs shouldn’t
keep you from the gym.
to the wise: Living involves sharing space and
objects with other people and with the invisible flora of
the earth. We cannot—and do not need to—walk around
wrapped in plastic. People with impaired or underdeveloped
immunity, such as the elderly, young children, pregnant women,
patients undergoing chemotherapy, and those with certain diseases
(HIV infection, for instance), do need to take extra precautions
because they can get sick from lower exposures and are at
higher risk for dangerous complications. But a healthy immune
system (including the skin) is good at protecting against
most microbes. Usually all that’s needed is commonsense
precautions like handwashing and not sharing intimate objects,
such as toothbrushes.