How to Kill Germs All Around Us without Becoming Obsessed

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: AN INTRODUCTION TO INFECTIOUS DISEASES

By Barry C. Fox, M.D., University of Wisconsin

If you look closely enough, you’ll see everything around us is contaminated with germs. It’s clear that decontamination technology is something we need to think about. But how much of a germaphobe do you want to become? Read on to learn some things about how you can protect yourself and kill germs without becoming totally obsessed with them.

Man washing hands with water and soap in sink.
Washing your hands correctly with plain soap and water gives you a good chance of avoiding getting sick. (Image: Maridav/Shutterstock)

How to Deal with Germs in Your Home

Let’s start with the kitchen. The sponges around the kitchen sink own a large burden of bacteria. Did you know you can sterilize a wet sponge by putting it in the microwave for two minutes? Just be careful taking it out of the microwave—it’s going to be hot.

If you wash chicken in the kitchen sink, and either a sponge falls in or you turn on the faucet with unwashed hands, both can become contaminated with virulent intestinal pathogens like campylobacter or salmonella.

How Dirty Is Your Toilet?

When it comes to toilets it seems easy. Just flush. But some people don’t realize that when you flush a toilet, bacteria in the toilet actually disperse into the air, so anything within a three-foot radius could be contaminated. So close the lid if you can.

Even toothbrushes lying around can be contaminated. However, as long as it’s your own toothbrush, these are your own bacteria, and not harmful. Resist the urge to share toothbrushes, as besides bacteria, they could pass on blood-borne viral diseases such as hepatitis B and C, and, of course, infectious mononucleosis without a kiss.

Other things to watch out for are sharing makeup, resulting in sharing bacteria, and sharing razors, which may inadvertently share MRSA or blood-borne viruses. 

What about our personal electronic devices? If you are the only one using your tablet, laptop, or cellphone—similar to your toothbrush—you’re likely to be OK since the germs are your own. However, be careful where you place these devices.

This is a transcript from the video series An Introduction to Infectious Diseases. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Stop the Germs to Spread: It’s Simple

Man sneezes into his elbow.
Using a tissue, or your hand, or a bent arm to cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing can help stop the spread of germs. (Image: dreii/Shutterstock)

First, let’s take a look at respiratory hygiene. Many diseases are spread by coughing and sneezing. When you cough or sneeze, germs can travel up to six or eight feet. Using a tissue, or your hand, or a bent arm to cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing can help stop the spread. Throw used tissues away and clean your hands afterward.

One important basic fact: we touch our faces with our hands around 20 times per hour. So try not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth (mucous membranes), providing easy access to your body for germs. Even when your hands appear to be clean, germs are often spread this way.

Learn more about how vaccines save lives.

Using Sanitizers

How do you use alcohol hand gels? The Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, Clean Hands Campaign has instructions on how to use hand sanitizers properly. First, put the alcohol gel in the palm of one hand. 

Bottle of hand sanitizer on table with medical surgical masks behind in the background.
The CDC has instructions on how to use hand sanitizers properly. You know you’ve used enough of the hand rub if it takes 25 to 30 seconds to dry on your hands. (Image: Maridav/Shutterstock)

Apply enough of the product to wet your hands completely. Next, rub your hands together, and clean all parts of the hands—fingers, thumbs, nails, and wrists. And rub your hands together until they’re dry. You know you’ve used enough of the hand rub if it takes 25 to 30 seconds to dry on your hands.

The Mayo Clinic also has a list of recommended conditions for sanitizing hands with gels or washing hands with soap and water. A small sampling of this list includes: before preparing food or eating, before treating wounds or giving medicine, before touching sick or injured people, before inserting or removing contact lenses, after preparing food, especially raw meat or poultry, after using the toilet or changing a diaper, and after touching an animal, animal toys, leashes, or animal waste.

Learn more about tick-borne diseases.

Does Washing Hands Actually Get Rid of Everything?

What about washing hands with just plain soap and water? Let us take a closer look at a small round virus known as norovirus. It’s the most common cause of gastrointestinal illness in the United States, affecting millions annually. 

It’s also the most common cause of food-borne illnesses, usually spread by food workers who don’t wash their hands properly. And it’s contracted by ingesting food or drinks contaminated with the virus, touching contaminated surfaces, etc. 

Moreover, sharing items like utensils with someone who is sick with the virus, or in a buffet, for example, can lead to norovirus infection. This is another reason there are handwashing signs posted in public restrooms—to remind people that germs can be transmitted unintentionally by unwashed hands.

Alcohol gels work against many viruses. Unfortunately, not very well against the norovirus. If you are using soap and water, you should wash your hands for about 24 seconds, lathering fully and covering all sides of your hands and fingers to completely remove bacteria. Twenty-four seconds is two rounds of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song.

If you wash your hands correctly with plain soap and water, you have a good chance of avoiding getting sick. Now, 24 seconds can seem like an eternity when you’re in a hurry, but it will be worth the wait. Unfortunately, estimates of how many people actually wash their hands after using the bathroom run no greater than 50 percent. Beware!

Common Questions about How to Kill Germs All Around Us without Becoming Obsessed

Q: How should we use alcohol gels?

Try to clean all parts of your hands, so make sure to clean them completely to kill the germs. Then rub your hands together, and if you have used enough of the alcohol gel, it will take around 25 to 30 seconds to dry off.

Q: How can we control the spread of germs?

Bend your arm or use your hand to cover both your mouth and nose if a tissue isn’t available in your vicinity. Afterward, try not to touch your face so you stop the spread of germs.

Q: How long should we wash our hands each time?

Just start singing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song. If you do it two times, it should take around 24 seconds, and try to make sure to remove all the germs, meaning washing all of your hands.

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