From pretty-colored leaves to cooler temperatures, it's clear that fall is in the air—and as we all spend more time inside, germs become harder to dodge. Many of us will wash our hands more frequently, or wipe down the elliptical more vigorously, in an effort to avoid catching the dreaded cold or flu this season. But will it work?
Whether the latest Ebola news has triggered your inner germaphobe, or you’re just year-round clean freak like me, it turns out many of us are taking some unnecessary precautions. I spoke with Elaine Larson, R.N., Ph.D., professor of nursing research at Columbia University and editor of the American Journal of Infection Control, about some of the measures I've taken to avoid germs (no doubt you'll find them familiar) and whether they actually work.
Washing Your Hands All. The. Time.
If you take away anything from this article, it should be this: “Spending a mere 15 seconds rubbing an alcohol-based hand sanitizer on your hands kills more germs, more quickly, than two minutes of hand washing,” Larson says. Washing with regular soap doesn’t actually kill germs—it just mechanically removes them through the friction of washing and drying, she explains. (Not that this is a free pass to skip the sink!)
And if you’ve ever heard that sanitizer increases your resistance to antibiotics or hurts your immunity, don’t worry—that’s a misconception, Larson says. Look for an alcohol-based (not antibacterial) cleanser that contains at least 62 percent alcohol.
Removing Your Shoes When You Get Home
“This is a great idea if it’s raining and you don’t want to dirty your floors, but it’s relatively useless in preventing infection,” Larson says. Unless you’re eating off the floor, or lying on your carpet with open wounds, this is a precaution you can probably skip. (The exception: If you have babies or small children who actually might be eating or rolling around on the floor, shed your shoes at the door to avoid bringing in potentially harmful germs.)
Not Touching Subway Poles
Smart move. Since dozens (hundreds?) of hands grab them too, it’s a good idea to avoid touching subway poles or other surfaces on public transportation. “Every time people touch something, they transfer thousands of germs,” says Larson. During flu season, it's especially grimy, since people tend to cough in their hands and then reach for a railing or pole. If you must hold on, just be sure use your alcohol-based hand sanitizer when you get off.
Using a Toilet Seat Cover
While the porcelain throne doesn’t pose a huge infection risk, using a toilet seat protector is generally a good idea, Larson says. “It's logical to avoid contact with other people’s bodily fluids. And of course, no one likes sitting down on something wet.”
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Wiping Down Gym Machines
“A lot of germ transmission can occur at the gym, where people sweat a lot, so it certainly makes sense to wipe down machines with a wet wipe,” Larson says. Any wipe will do—simply the mechanical rubbing of wet wipes helps care of the germs. And after you finish your workout, wash your hands.
Bringing Your Own Yoga Mat to Class
Unless it’s your own mat, you just don’t know how often it's cleaned, Larson says. If someone has a skin infection that touches the mat, that organism can survive there for at least an hour or more. So if you have even the tiniest cut, and it makes contact with the mat during savasana, you could be infected too. Either bring your own, or at the very least, wipe down the gym's mat before practice.
Wearing Flip-Flops in the Locker Room
Yes, it's another thing to stuff in your gym bag, but you really don't want to walk around barefoot. "The showers at the gym are the area with the highest risk of infection," Larson says. "Since they stay wet all day, it’s an ideal breeding ground for a lot of germs and bacteria that can cause not only illness, but also conditions like athletes’ foot." She recommends wearing flip-flops or shoes in the shower and while walking around the locker room.