Germs: Killers and Contaminators

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WARNING: What you are about to read may make you seriously germophobic! The world contains more harmful germs than you might realize. And the places germs do and don’t hide out may really surprise you. Of course, icky microorganisms are not entirely avoidable, and you shouldn’t let fear of germs take over your life. But if you have small children, you are planning to enter a medical profession, or you just want to be savvier about staying clean and avoiding illness, you’re in the right place!

A Brief History of Germs

"Louis Pasteur, the father of pasteurization, was also an important figure in the early study of germs. He proved that microorganisms present in the air could also grow on food, causing it to spoil."Click to Tweet! 

Naturally, germs have been around forever. But it wasn’t until the 1800s that people finally began to accept and understand the germ theory of disease. According to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, before then most people didn’t realize that germs could make them sick, or that hand washing could prevent illness and save lives. In fact, the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweiss discovered that medical students often delivered babies after dissecting corpses, failing to wash their hands in between! When Semmelweiss insisted that students start washing their hands, the death rate of new mothers dropped significantly.

Killers and Contaminators : Germs

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Louis Pasteur, the father of pasteurization, was also an important figure in the early study of germs. He proved that microorganisms present in the air could also grow on food, causing it to spoil. Inspired by Pasteur, a Scottish surgeon names Joseph Lister began using carbolic acid to clean his patients’ wounds. And once penicillin was discovered by accident in 1928, the war on germs was in full swing!

"But how long do germs survive? Certain viruses can live on your hands for as long as an hour, giving you plenty of time to spread your cold to everyone in the office or classroom! Certain kinds of bacteria and protozoa, like staph and Giardia, may be able to live for months outside a human body."Click to Tweet! 

How are Germs Spread?

There are several common means by which germs are spread. One obvious way is from nose, mouth, or eyes to hand to others—like when you have a cold and you shake someone’s hand after you’ve been blowing your nose all day. You could also transmit germs from your hands to food that you are preparing. And in the case of food borne bacteria like salmonella, it’s all too easy to transmit germs from food to hands to food; an example is handling raw chicken and then making a salad without properly washing your hands first. Caring for kids and animals can lead to the spread of germs, too.

But how long do germs survive? Certain viruses can live on your hands for as long as an hour, giving you plenty of time to spread your cold to everyone in the office or classroom! Certain kinds of bacteria and protozoa, like staph and Giardia, may be able to live for months outside a human body. And fungi like Candida, or yeast, may hang out for months on anything from your towels to your favorite lipstick. Talk about gross!

"The germs you encounter in innocent places can do some serious damage. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the 2013 flu season saw as many as 3,697 people die from influenza in the U.S."Click to Tweet! 

What Public Places are the Germiest?

If most people had to take a guess, they’d probably say public toilets are hotspots for dangerous germs. The surprising answer is that most toilets are not as dirty as you might think. With about 1,000 units of bacteria per square inch, the average toilet seat is about 11 times cleaner than your mobile phone! A typical bathroom floor, on the other hand, is home to as many as 2 million bacteria per square inch. Some other surprising culprits include restaurant menus, bathroom soap dispensers, steering wheels, and airplane armrests. And don’t forget the bottoms of your shoes, which may each carry as many as 421,000 units of bacteria, including E. coli, meningitis, and Klebsiella pneumonia.

Schools are also breeding grounds for bacteria, with the worst offenders being water fountains, cafeteria trays, and faucet handles. As reported by Today’s Parent, kids who enter daycare may be exposed to all kinds of harmful germs, like cold viruses, stomach bugs, and conjunctivitis (pinkeye). Shared toys, food, and being in close contact with other kids are usually to blame. And consider that a single bathroom for an entire classroom of kids may mean infrequent hand washing; in fact, over half of school kids claimed they did not have time to scrub up before meals.

The germs you encounter in innocent places can do some serious damage. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the 2013 flu season saw as many as 3,697 people die from influenza in the U.S. A Methicillin-resistant strain of staph, which is found in many public places including taxis, may cause as many as 80,000 invasive infections each year (CDC). And 1.2 million people get sick from salmonella annually (CDC); that’s as if the entire population of Dallas, Texas contracted this dangerous foodborne illness!

"You may think you already practice frequent hand washing. But actually, most people don’t wash their hands correctly. For starters, you need to scrub your hands long enough to actually kill germs, which means at least 20 seconds. You can sing yourself the “Happy Birthday” song twice in your head to make sure you’ve spent enough time under the faucet!" Click to Tweet! 

How to Protect Against Germs

The most obvious solution to staying healthy is washing your hands regularly. The CDC recommends washing your hands before, during, and after handling food(including pet food), eating, caring for the sick, coming into contact with human or animal waste, touching garbage, tending to a wound, using the toilet, andcoughing or sneezing. That list is not exhaustive, but it’s safe to say there are many times throughout the day when it’s important to scrub up!

You may think you already practice frequent hand washing. But actually, most people don’t wash their hands correctly. For starters, you need to scrub your hands long enough to actually kill germs, which means at least 20 seconds. You can sing yourself the “Happy Birthday” song twice in your head to make sure you’ve spent enough time under the faucet! Another little-known hand washing fact is that how you dry your hands makes all the difference. As reported by Infection Control Today, wet hands are about 1000 times likelier to spread bacteria than dry hands, and rubbing your hands together while drying may actually cause bacteria to multiply.

"Germs live in your body, on plants and animals, and even in the air you breathe. In short, it’s impossible to eliminate germs from your life, and you might go crazy if you tried! In most cases, your immune system protects you from infection, allowing you to go about your day without worrying too much." Click to Tweet! 

If you don’t have access to soap and water, hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol may be an okay stand-in. Other common sense tips include avoiding people who are sick, regularly disinfecting surfaces, and keeping your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth. A more unusual tip: consider a fist-bump instead of a handshake, since it spreads about 1/10 the amount of germs of a handshake.

Should You Worry?

Germs live in your body, on plants and animals, and even in the air you breathe. In short, it’s impossible to eliminate germs from your life, and you might go crazy if you tried! In most cases, your immune system protects you from infection, allowing you to go about your day without worrying too much. Of course, almost everyone has experienced a nasty cold or bug they wished they could have avoided, and some infections are even life-threatening. Understanding the dangers and how to avoid them is important to staying safe, healthy, and (mostly) in control of the nasty germs you encounter!

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