As kids we learn lots of ways to stop the spread of germs: Wash your hands before dinner (and especially after touching raw meat), clean cuts and scrapes before putting on Band-Aids, and cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing. We do these simple actions to avoid infections and disease—and almost without thinking. So it makes sense that few of us have stepped back to ask: What are we really protecting ourselves from? What things can I do at home to stay healthy and germ-free? And what are germs anyway?
"Germ" is the catch-all term for a range of microorganisms believed to be responsible for causing disease. But many of these microscopic creatures are harmless, so the term "pathogen" is more apt to describe the disease-causing variety.
What to Watch Out For
Most mold—the kind you find on a piece of bread—is harmless, unless you have a mold allergy. If you do get sick after eating moldy food, chances are it was actually other pathogens on the same piece of food that caused you to feel unwell. Think of mold as a warning sign that harmful germs are nearby. Mold is found in trace amounts in the air and in rare occasions makes itself at home in your house. Again, it’s not the mold that makes you sick—so-called “toxic mold” is a misnomer—but rather the toxins produced by mold.
At-home cooks worth their salt can tell you that salmonella is practically synonymous with uncooked chicken. Salmonella naturally lives in the digestive tracts of poultry and can be passed to humans through direct contact with live animals or by eating undercooked meat that has been contaminated. It can also be passed through eggs, red meat, and milk. There were more than 45,000 diagnosed cases of salmonella in the U.S. in 2011 (the last year with available data from the CDC) that resulted in more than 350 deaths.
E. coli lives in the gut of both humans and animals. While most strains are harmless, some can cause illnesses such as urinary tract infections, bloody diarrhea, anemia, and kidney failure, which can lead to death. Contamination occurs when food or water comes in contact with human or animal fecal matter—when cooks don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom. Most cases of E. coli are mild—there were fewer than 3,000 hospitalizations related to E. coli in 2011. But E. coli still has researchers at the CDC concerned because drug-resistant strains have been popping up more frequently in recent years.
Like E. coli, this bacteria lives in the digestive tract of humans and animals and is transferred through contact with fecal matter. People usually become infected after touching a surface—like a toilet bowl—that has the bacteria on it and then touching their mouth or nose. People who have recently taken antibiotics (especially those in a hospital setting) are at the highest risk of getting the infection. And its potency is concerning to the CDC, which has counted an average of 250,000 infections and 14,000 deaths related to C. diff in recent years.
C. botulinim is a bacteria that leads to botulism, an illness that causes people to feel lethargic, weak, and unable to sleep. The disease affects fewer than 150 people (mostly infants) a year in the U.S. but can be fatal if untreated. The bacteria can be found on the surface of uncooked foods as well as in the soil. The biggest threat at home comes from improperly processing preserved foods like homemade vinegars, canned goods, and fermented foods. Bacteria is naturally part of these foods, but botulism can develop if conditions are not adequately controlled.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus
MRSA is a bacteria that causes nasty skin infections. The bacteria is resistant to many antibiotics, making it increasingly difficult to treat. According to the Mayo Clinic, MRSA infections are most commonly seen in people who have recently been in a hospital or other healthcare setting, but it can also spread via skin-to-skin contact in at-risk groups, such as school wrestling teams, childcare workers, and others living or working in high-density populations.
Disinfecting Action Plan
Many hand sanitizers and disinfectants on the market claim that they "kill 99.99% of germs" or "kill germs on contact." But they fail to explain what really needs to be cleaned and how often. So we found the facts.
Hand washing: From a public health perspective, washing your hands with soapy water is the surefire way to protect you and others from illness. We come in contact with germs all the time, but they have to make their way into our bodies—typically through the mouth and noise—to get us sick. We touch our faces an average of 16 times an hour, so proper hand washing is a strong first line of defense against germs.
Food safety: If you look closely at the list of most dangerous household germs above, you'll notice that salmonella, E. coli, C. diff, and C. botulinium are all associated with food-borne illness. But that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear if you give raw chicken—and any other meat you’re cooking—a thorough rub down. To the contrary, researchers have shown that it's a bad idea to wash chicken before cooking it.
To protect yourself from food-borne germs, you're better off following good cooking practices like separating raw meats and vegetables, ensuring meat is cooked according to recommended times and temperatures, and keeping your refrigerator below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure you also thoroughly wash any cutting boards or surfaces you used to cut raw meat—plain old dish soap and hot water will do the trick. And don’t forget to wash your hands after handling raw meat and every time you head out of the kitchen.
Bathroom sanitation: Both E. coli and C. diff can be contracted after contact with poop (er, fecal matter). The germs found in fecal matter make their way out of the toilet bowl by latching onto our hands or by getting sprayed around the bathroom when the toilet is flushed, so closing the lid before flushing is a good safety measure. The bacteria that does get into the air can survive on inanimate surfaces like faucets and handles for months How long do nosocomial pathogens persist on inanimate surfaces? A systematic review. Kramer A, Schwebke I, Kampf G. BMC Infectious Diseases. 2006 Aug 16;6:130. .
At home, the bathroom is one of the few places we recommend a regular disinfecting treatment. If you're comfortable using an all-purpose disinfectant, simply follow the instructions on the bottle. If not, a towel soaked in high-proof alcohol (vodka works well) makes an effective and safe sanitizer.
If you're using a public restroom, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly. And wash your hands again before eating or handling food. You'll inevitably pick up a few germs here and there, but probably not enough to do any real harm. As for toilet seats and other surfaces, they're not the disease cesspools we often think of. They’re actually some of the cleanest things you come in contact with.
General cleaning: By cleaning, we mean getting rid of visible dirt. While disinfecting surfaces targets invisible microscopic pathogens, general cleaning is all about the dirt and grime that can be seen with the naked eye. A simple mixture of soap and water is the easiest—and generally the most effective—way to clean everything from floors to countertops. There’s no need to splurge on fancy cleaning supplies.
And there you have it. Given the diseases household germs can cause, we should take them seriously. That’s why it’s so important to form good habits for hand washing and cleaning, especially in the kitchen and bathroom. But there’s no need for germs to cause any sleepless nights. After all, a mixture of soap and water (and some elbow grease) is the best defense.