Wash your hands often—before eating; before and after handling food, particularly raw meat or fish; after having sex; before putting in contact lenses or treating a wound; after using the toilet; after sneezing, coughing, or blowing your nose (particularly when you have a cold), or after any other task that leaves your hands grimy. Covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze is another important preventive measure.
Soaps with triclosan and other antiseptics do kill or inhibit bacteria, but the result is essentially the same as with regular soap. Studies have found no additional benefit from using antibacterial or antiseptic products. And they are more likely to cause skin irritations than plain soap. The widespread use of antibacterial products may also encourage the development of drug-resistant bacteria.
Wash thoroughly, using both soap and water. (Any kind of soap is fine.) Warm water cuts through the oil on your hands faster, but cold water will also do the job. Rub your hands with soap and water for at least 15 seconds to loosen the germs and dirt, rinse all the soap away, then dry your hands well. Soap and water don’t actually kill microorganisms, but they create a slippery environment so they slide off.
Nothing can take the place of cleanliness. That means frequent washing of kitchen counters and utensils, particularly any that have come in contact with raw meat. Also, wash or replace sponges and dish cloths often. An antibacterial sponge will not disinfect a countertop, and the sponge will eventually get dirty. Plain soap or detergent is just as effective in the kitchen as an antibacterial product.
When you don’t have access to a sink, use alcohol gels and wipes. The alcohol kills most bacteria and viruses, but unlike antibacterial soaps, it can’t promote resistant bacteria. Note that alcohol is very drying to the skin, and washing with plain soap and water is just as effective at getting rid of germs. If you do use one of these products, make sure it contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
There’s no evidence that household products containing antibacterial chemicals reduce the risk of infections. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered some marketers of such products to stop making misleading claims about health benefits. The danger is that if people imagine that products are “self-sanitizing,” they’ll dispense with regular hygiene—that is, soap and water—to prevent the transmission of germs.
There is an increased risk of catching a cold when flying. People often blame this on poor ventilation, especially the recirculation of cabin air. But studies have found that the infection rate is the same in planes that use 100 percent fresh air for ventilation and those that use recirculated cabin air. The real culprit is simple human proximity. Various anti-germ devices serve little or no health purpose.
There’s also no evidence that wearing a mask made of paper, gauze or cotton will protect you against infections in a plane or anywhere else. Viruses and bacteria are small enough to pass through any ordinary weave. Masks designed for hospital use are more effective, but they won’t block all viruses. And it takes training to properly handle a hospital mask. If it traps infectious organisms, you can still become infected.
Microbes thrive in the warm, damp environments found in many health clubs and pools. But facilities that are properly cleaned and disinfected pose little risk, especially if you shower after working out, or at least wash your hands before touching food or your face. Worries about germs shouldn’t keep you from the gym.