Don’t want to get sick this season?
Sure, you know the basics: Carry hand sanitizer everywhere. Grab public bathroom door handles with paper towels. Hold your breath when your unwell-looking subway seat partner starts coughing.
Bad news, germaphobe: Your meticulous habits aren’t doing much to protect you.
Here’s a look at all the weird germ-avoidance behaviours that are likely not doing you any good:
1. Avoiding public transit
A team of geneticists recently made headlines after their mission to document all the bacteria on the New York City subway turned up nearly 600 different species of microbes (the vast majority of which were “unidentifiable”).
Almost all of them were totally harmless.
After all, literally every surface in the world around you is covered in bacteria. Roughly three pounds of your body weight is accounted for by bacteria alone. The idea that things can be “perfectly clean” is a myth — we need bacteria to live.
More importantly, there’s evidence to suggest that exposing yourself to everyday pathogens — such as those carried on our skin, in our intestines, and on the bodies of pets and insects — might actually be good for you, especially if you get exposed at a young age.
2. Holding your breath when someone around you sneezes or coughs
When someone sneezes or coughs without covering their mouth or nose, they’re essentially shooting their bacteria out into the air. Sneeze particles travel at speeds approaching 200 mph; cough particles travel about 50 mph.
If you’re already within range of the nasty germs, there’s little chance that holding your breath will keep them from coming into contact with your mouth, nose, or eyes. It will stop you from pulling in any bacteria hanging directly in front of your face, but that’s about it.
3. Carrying hand sanitizer with you everywhere
Hand sanitizer doesn’t kill all germs, so stick to soap and water when you can.
Norovirus, for example, a pathogen that’s most often transferred via infected food and causes diarrhoea, and C. difficile, which can cause deadly diarrhoea and most commonly affects older adults, are immune to sanitizing gels.
So long as it’s got a hefty amount of alcohol (the CDC recommends only using solutions with 60% or more), though, sanitizer will kill as much common bacteria as soap and water can.
4. Covering toilet seats with seat liners
Public bathrooms first started stocking their stalls with these flimsy, frustrating sheets shortly after a husband and wife who reasoned that toilet seats could spread infectious diseases patented their invention in the 1920s.
Like most other hard surfaces, though, toilet seats can carry common microbes like E. coli and infection-causing streptococcus, but you’d have to touch them and then touch your unwashed hands to your mouth or eyes to get sick. So long as you’re washing your hands after doing your business, you should be fine.
5. Using paper towels to grab door handles
Bathroom door handles and grimy subway poles seem like ripe breeding grounds for bacteria. One geneticist recently likened holding a subway pole to shaking hands with 10,000 people.
Not quite: While dirty hands can carry E. coli and other potentially harmful bacteria, most of the microbes you’ll find on handrails and door handles are harmless.
Plus, if you’re grasping handles with towels to avoid touching them and then putting the towels in your pocket or purse, you’re merely transferring the bacteria to another spot where you’ll touch it later.
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