Old Man Winter is still hanging around, and we're continuing to cope with the coughing, sneezing and sniffles of colds and flu. Winter is definitely the germiest time of the year, say experts, and touching an infected doorknob and then touching your nose can be enough to make you ill. Fortunately, there are positive steps you can take to reduce your exposure to germs and minimize your risk of getting sick.
Wash your hands. You've heard this advice many times before, but it bears repeating: Keeping your hands clean is key to keeping viruses away from your body's entry points, such as your eyes, nose, and mouth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), handwashing is a do-it-yourself vaccine. Your hands, and especially your fingers, are magnets for bacteria and viruses.
A good hand-washing uses five steps — wet, lather, scrub, rinse, and dry. When you're out in public, use plenty of soap. Skip the hand air dryer and use paper towels. The U.K.'s University of Leeds found that air hand dryers, both "jet air" and warm air dryers, scatter germs much like an aerosol can disperses its contents when sprayed. Air bacterial counts close to jet air dryers were found to be 4.5 times higher than around warm air dryers and 27 times higher compared with the air when using paper towels. Dry your hands thoroughly, since germs cling to damp hands more easily.
Use hand sanitizers. If you can't wash your hands with soap and water, use a hand sanitizer. While they're not as effective as a good hand-scrubbing and some are basically ineffective, if you use a lot of the product, it's better than doing nothing at all, says the CDC.
Although they kill germs, they come with their own set of problems. They often contain parabens and triclosans, chemicals that prevent the growth of bacteria, but they are endocrine disrupters and have been linked to cancer. So, use soap and water if possible.
Use your elbows and knuckles. Elevator buttons are one of the germiest surfaces you'll touch all day. First floor buttons are the most contaminated because they're used the most. You can avoid many of the germs that linger on buttons by punching them with your knuckle (you don't usually wipe your eye or touch your mouth with your knuckle, so the germs aren't likely to transfer) or your elbow.
ATM and checkout machines are also germy. Researchers at the University of Arizona found that each key on an ATM is home to an average of 1,200 germs, including flu viruses and E. coli. Use your knuckle or an unopened pen to punch buttons. The same researchers also found that about 65 percent of touch screens at grocery and hardware checkout counters were contaminated with fecal bacteria.
Clean your office. Viruses cling to surfaces such as computer keyboards and door handles, but the CDC says they don't live long. Fight back by taking the time to wipe down susceptible surfaces with disinfectant wipes once a day to keep germs from spreading. Don't forget the break room. University of Arizona's Dr. Charles Gerba (Dr. Germ) found high levels of contamination on many areas in the break room including sink faucet handles, microwave door handles, refrigerator door handles, and water fountain and vending machine buttons.
Sanitize shopping cart handles. Take advantage of the antiseptic wipes many retail businesses provide to clean shopping cart handles and baskets. The handles on grocery carts usually have more germs than the supermarket's restroom, says Gerba. He found that 72 percent of 85 carts in four states tested positive for fecal bacteria. In addition, he found Escherichia coli (E. coli) on half of the carts.
Keep your distance. It may seem obvious, but keep your distance from people who are sick. Flu germs spread on the air — from sneezes and coughs — but keeping a few feet away can keep you away from the densest concentration of germs.
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