Dec. 11, 2011 at 11:42 AM ET
We've all been warned about the germiest areas of the shopping mall -- the bathroom sinks, escalator handrails and dirty food court tables.
But what about those hacking, sniffling people standing next to us in the checkout line?
"I've had people cough all over me or cough into their hand and then hand me money," says Lisa Phillips, 49, of Eugene, Ore., who's worked in retail for six years. "It's like they want to share. ... I feel like saying, 'Have you heard of online shopping?'"
Dr. Paul Kassab, who practices internal medicine at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, says going out shopping with a bad cold or flu can definitely put others at risk.
"I wouldn't call them walking germ factories but you could do some serious germ spreading without knowing it," he says. "If someone has a cough or is sneezing or blowing their nose, then basically the germ -- whatever it is -- will be on their hands. If you're handing people your credit card, looking at stuff on the shelves and putting it back, using a shopping cart -- anything you handle will have germs on it."
Shopping carts, in particular, have been shown to harbor all kinds of germs -- and not just cold and flu bugs. A study in March found that 50 percent of them carried E. coli and 72 percent carried markers for fecal bacteria.
Colds and the flu are what most people pick up this time of year, though. And Phillips, who's sold everything from toys to books to women's lingerie, says she's experienced plenty of germ warfare during the holiday retail season.
"People will have little kids with them and they'll have a nice croupy cough and green stuff coming out of every orifice and then they'll let their kids gnaw on all kinds of toys and clothes," she says. "And then they'll hand it to you and say, 'I don't want this' after their kid has totally germed it out. It's disgusting. You have to put on gloves and throw it away."
Kassab says sickos who still feel the need to shop should make sure they wash their hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer as much as possible.
"Obviously, if you're coughing, cough into your sleeve," he says. "But it's really more the touch. If you're out shopping and you have a cold, using Purell would tremendously reduce the chance of giving it to others."
Is it possible to pass along a cold or flu bug to someone in a gaily-wrapped holiday package?
"That's a tough one to answer," says Kassab. "Probably not if the gift has been wrapped for more than a day or two. Most bugs need a host or they'll die."
Last minute sickly shoppers may want to take advantage of a store's gift wrapping service, though.