Feature Archive

Germs Are Everywhere -- Really

As you hit the road for summer travel, get in touch with those unsuspected surfaces that are breeding grounds for illness.

By Sid Kirchheimer
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Besides providing a healthy renewal of mind and spirit, a summer vacation makes good antimicrobial sense, especially when you consider that typical workplace desktop has more germs than a public toilet seat.

But let's face it, when you hit the road for your weeklong escape, those kids arguing in the backseat or giant rodents posing for photos at theme parks aren't going to be your only travel companions. There are zillions of germs living on the umpteen surfaces you touch.

And they don't take a vacation, even when you do.

That could explain why 80% of infections are spread the same way: Someone touches a germ-ridden surface. Or someone infected by germ particles from a sneeze, a cough, or a touch -- gets the infectious bug onto their hands.

What's In a Touch?

"Whether germs are viral, bacterial, or fungal, some can remain active on most surfaces for several days -- no matter whether the surface is stainless steel, wood, plastic, or even the paper in a magazine," says Elaine Jong, MD, co-director of the University of Washington Travel Clinic in Seattle.P>

When you touch that surface, it's transmitted to your hands. Then if you touch your eyes or rub their nose or lips, when you eat or in any way get your fingers in contact with a mucous surface, voila ... you have infected yourself."

The best way to prevent problems, of course, is to never touch these "problem" surfaces. But that's not so easy.

"The funny thing is, what many people consider to be the germiest surfaces may not be so bad, while some of the most germ-ridden areas are not what most people expect," says University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD, a leading researcher better known in the science world as "Dr. Germ."

Popular Opinion, Scientific Reality

For instance, Gerba recently completed a survey of 1,000 people -- getting their opinions of where the germs collect in full force, boosting their risk for infection, and compared those opinions to the evidence he's collected in thousands of germ samples.

"Most people consider Port-a-Potties and other public toilets to be the worst places in terms of surface germs. But in reality, they don't even come close to what you'll find on ATM machines, phone receivers, and elevator buttons," he tells WebMD. "That's because those toilets are cleaned and disinfected regularly. But when was the last time a typical phone or buttons on an ATM machine or elevators were?"

Of course, germs are everywhere -- and the key to removing them is with a regular cleaning (soap and clean water) and disinfecting. And because this one-two punch isn't done on many public surfaces, Gerba notes that some of the germiest places you'll likely encounter this summer include:

  • Picnic tables. "They are never cleaned or disinfected and birds like to roost on them, especially on picnic tables near a pond or in the shade," says Gerba, a professor of environmental microbiology who has collected thousands of germ concentration samples for dozens of studies. "You should never eat from a picnic table, or even touch the surface, unless you have your own tablecloth."
  • Playgrounds. "Some are even worse than picnic tables, and that's pretty bad -- and the monkey bars tend to be the very germiest place," he says. "That's because they're primarily used by small children who rarely wash their hands and run around with colds." Especially avoid tables and benches, where diaper changes are often done, he advises.
  • Airport bathrooms. The problem isn't that airport bathrooms aren't cleaned and disinfected -- they are. "It's that so many people use the bathrooms as soon as they leave the place that janitors just can't keep up with the influx of germs from around the world."