Despite all the recent news stories about killer viruses and exotic diseases, keep in mind that the bugs you know may be worse than the bugs you read about.
updated 10/31/2003 6:18:46 PM ET 2003-10-31T23:18:46

All those pictures of people wearing masks to avoid SARS may have caused you to reconsider traveling afar this summer. And what if a terrorist lets loose a deadly bioterror attack in the big city you were planning to visit? Then there’s West Nile virus, perhaps lurking nearby, to say nothing about monkeypox. Maybe it’s best to just stay safe inside at home. But keep in mind that the bugs you know may be worse than the bugs you read about.

That's the message from Dr. Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology at NYU Medical Center and author of “The Secret Life of Germs.”

Germs, bacteria and viruses are pretty much everywhere — on your body, your home, in the air, he says. Nothing terrible will happen when you’re exposed to most of them. But there are common troublemakers, such as rhinovirus (which is responsible for the common cold), E. coli, salmonella, staph and campylobacter, all which can create serious problems.

'Germ are on everything'
“Germs are on everything we touch, eat and breathe, but good hygiene can prevent the spread of many viruses and contagious diseases,” Tierno said. And the home may be your main battleground. Check out these tips for cleanliness:

Wash! Touch your eyes, nose and mouth with your unwashed hands, and you’ve just invited an infectious illness or two — from a cold to deadly Ebola — to take up residence in your body.

Yet Tierno cites studies that show 50 percent of people fail to wash their hands after a trip to the bathroom, and 10 percent of those who do wash don’t do it adequately. The kind of soap — anti-bacterial or regular — doesn’t matter as much as how well you wash. Get rid of germs by sudsing and scrubbing for a minimum of 20 seconds.

Your kitchen can be yucky. Tierno says it’s probably dirtier than the toilet. Staph, salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli thrive there. Most poultry you bring in has some salmonella, campylobacter, or both. Clean kitchen surfaces with detergent to eliminate germs that can end up in food, he advises. Pay special attention to cabinet doors, handles on faucets, drawers, refrigerators, knife storage racks, utensil holders and dish racks.

The sink often holds germs that can survive on plates and flatware, so go over it regularly with bleach. Cutting boards also harbor germs; consider getting the kind that have germicide incorporated into the material.

Then there is that trusty kitchen sponge, which Tierno says is the single most infectious source in a kitchen. Clean it after each use in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water, then air dry.

While you’re still in the kitchen, take a good look at the refrigerator. Even though most food-borne bacteria prefer warm, humid conditions, others, such as listeria monocytogenes, which causes food poisoning, do great in the fridge. Soft cheese, coleslaw, pate, hot dogs and cold cuts are the most likely carriers of listeria and should not be kept more than 10 days.

If you bring home a leftover bag from a restaurant, get it into the refrigerator within two hours, then reheat and serve only once. Also keep track of use-by dates on condiments and other foods.

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The next front in your war on germs is the bathroom. Bet you didn’t know that you shed 1.5 million flakes of your own skin each hour. These attach to towels, providing a good meal for microbes, so ideally you should use these linens only once between launderings. If you do use them more than once, then make sure they air dry completely. The same goes for your toothbrushes, loofah sponges, bath puffs and soap cakes. Tierno advises using liquid soap from a dispenser.

Clean the toilet bowl and seat at least once a week with a germicidal cleanser, with special attention to the flushing mechanism. Get into the habit of closing the lid before flushing; flushing can send contaminated matter up to 20 feet into the air, Tierno says.

In public restrooms, use toilet paper to handle the flush mechanism; door handles or knobs and faucets are likely to be germ-laden.

Be aware of what lurks in the makeup caddy. You will contaminate your cosmetics with your own germs, a good reason not to share them with anyone. Contaminated mascara or eyeliner can be the source of eye infections or pinkeye. Discard blush after two years and lipstick after a year. If you’ve got a cold, wipe off the top layer of lipstick before reusing.

Living or family rooms are great places to exchange your bugs. Germ catchers cited by Tierno include remote controls, phones, computer keyboards, light switches, and doorknobs, all of which should be cleaned weekly with disinfectants or antiseptic spray. Carpeting harbors skin cells, pet hair, fungi, mites and other allergens.

Wall-to-wall carpets are a special challenge, and they should be vacuumed using a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter and sprayed with disinfectant products.

About that vacuum: Tierno advises that it’s worth the money to get a model with an air or HEPA filter that will prevent the machine from recirculating contaminants.

Dust and germs like to sleep in the bedroom, too. You’re probably already in the habit of changing the sheets each week, but keep in mind blankets and duvets also harbor dander and tissue debris, so make sure they are dry cleaned or laundered once or twice each year. Clean or launder upholstered headboards and curtains, which also collect dust and germs.

Tierno has particular advice for you if you have a baby at home. Because infant immune response is not fully developed, you should clean toys, high chairs and car seats frequently, using cleaning agents that won’t harm the little one, such as hydrogen peroxide or soap and water.

Wash your hands carefully after holding a baby, not just after changing a diaper. Teach toddlers to wash their own hands carefully.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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