It’s the germiest time of the year. Flu season is in full swing, COVID-19 variants just won’t go away and more time indoors means more close-quarters coughing. Eww.
Follow tried-and-true advice to stay healthy this sniffle season: Wash your hands, don’t touch your face and avoid biting your nails. To illuminate handwashing’s importance, we wanted to learn about the invisible dangers lurking on items we touch every day. So, we visited Rachel Hearne, microbiologist and self-professed lab nerd at Roper St. Francis Healthcare. She swabbed a phone case, keyboard and a key fob, and then incubated the germs to see what we had growing.
Rachel’s notes below reveal plenty of reasons to wash your hands.
The light pink plate demonstrated no growth, which is a relief. This plate is selective for organisms that thrive in high-salt concentrations, often the “bad guys” that can get you really sick.
However, the yellowish colonies on the chocolate plate did catch my eye. Those are Staph aureus, notorious for causing severe infections if they find their way into the wrong part of your body. The other white and greenish colonies? Those are usually harmless Staph and Strep species. They’re always around us and could be troublemakers under specific conditions.
While the image of the inoculated plates might look uneventful, it’s anything but! That lone colony on the red plate? That’s Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). This superbug is resistant to many antibiotics and can cause havoc if it enters a wound. But let’s not panic. Clean those keys with a bleach wipe and you’re good. And unless you’ve made a habit of licking your key fob, there’s no immediate cause for concern. If there were hundreds of those colonies, though, I might suggest getting a new car! 😊
I saved the best for last. OMG! Wipe down that phone case right now! Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a bacterium that can cause all sorts of sickness, including liquefying an eyeball in just a day – it’s all over your phone! There’s also some E. coli, a Bacillus species (harmless soil bacterium, but a cousin to the infamous Anthrax), and some Staph aureus. This snapshot is typical for most phones, which might not be life-threatening, but could indeed be making us sick or exacerbating existing conditions. My advice? Wipe your phone with a bleach wipe and consider investing in a UV sanitizer. They work.
Taking Action to Stay Germ-Free
Having seen the microbial universe on our belongings, what can we do to protect ourselves from getting sick? Kathy Ward, a Roper St. Francis Healthcare infection prevention expert with 32 years of experience, offers these three tips to battle bacteria and viruses.
1. Hand Hygiene
The primary way we introduce germs into our system is by touching our mucous membranes, like our eyes, nose, or mouth, without proper hand hygiene. So, even if you avoid habits like rubbing your eyes or biting your nails, it’s essential to wash your hands properly and frequently.
2. Proper Disinfection
Use effective household products like Lysol and Clorox-based disinfectants to clean everyday items. Ensure you read the label to understand how long it takes for the disinfectant to act and always let the sanitizer sit and dry on the surface to kill the germs effectively.
3. Safe Food Handling
During the holiday season, when kitchen activity peaks, prioritize proper food handling. This includes sanitizing cutting boards between vegetable and meat preparations, avoiding washing poultry to prevent the spread of contaminants, and not leaving food out for extended periods.You can protect yourself by getting your flu shot and staying up to date with your all your vaccines. Talk to your primary care doctor about which vaccines you should have. If you don’t have a doctor, you can find one here.