How to Disinfect Germ Hot Spots

Laura McMullen

Quick! When's the last time you disinfected your computer mouse? How long have you been using the same kitchen sponge? A puzzled gaze is not a sufficient answer. As cold and flu season takes office mates hostage and sends roommates into hibernation, don't blame the chilly weather. Consider the germs festering in the nooks and crannies of everyday life. Your phone, cutting board, sink, coffee mug, reusable shopping bags--these ordinary objects can be the very weapons that make you sick.

But we've got you covered. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist and coauthor of The Germ Freak's Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu, reveals germ hotspots and how to disinfect them.

In the Office. Imagine: A coworker comes to work with a cold. After stepping off the bus, where he likely picked up lots of other germs, he touches the doorknob to enter the office, touches the door of the break room, touches the cupboard to grab a cup, touches the handle of the coffee pot, touches the counter as he pours, touches the drawer for sugar packets and a swizzle stick, touches the refrigerator handle to open it, and then touches the inside of the fridge (where his coworkers' food is) as he digs for coffee creamer. And that was five minutes into his day. "It's amazing how fast a virus can move in an office," Gerba says. "If one person comes in with the cold or flu, he can infect as many as one-third of his fellow office mates within a day."

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And as one may guess from that horror story, the break room is where germs are most prevalent. The solution? Wipe it down. Use disinfectant wipes, which can be found in many stores from brands like Clorox and Lysol. Gerba prefers these disposable options to sponges or rags, which can grow bacteria like E. coli.

Regularly wiping the countertops, tabletops, and coffee pot handles of the break room greatly reduces the number of viruses in the office, Gerba says. Discuss this policy with the office manager or maintenance staff, or do the wiping yourself. "During the cold and flu season, I'd certainly do it once in the morning and at lunchtime, and then in the mid-afternoon," Gerba says, adding to wipe again after meeting with clients.

Think you're safe from the break room bacteria while in your own office or cubicle? Think again. The very keyboard you tap, mouse you click, and computer you stare into are ripe with germs. Studies show that office workers can touch about 40 objects per minute, Gerba says. So, if you poured coffee from the same pot as your sick coworker, you likely brought those germs back to your desktop. "Most people don't clean their desktop until they start sticking to it for a week," he says. In fact, there are about 200 times more bacteria on the average desktop than on a toilet seat, he says, because while janitors regularly disinfect restrooms, they don't touch your computer. It's up to you to wipe your desktop like you did with the break room, about once per day during cold and flu season.

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At Home. Gross but true: "If you want to find fecal bacteria, go to the kitchen," Gerba says. Again, we're so concerned with icky bathroom germs that we often "nuke the toilet seat," but neglect the very space where we prepare and eat food. The kitchen is in fact the "germiest" spot in the home, specifically sponges, sinks, and cutting boards, Gerba says. Moist sponges are the perfect place to bacteria to grow, so each week, Gerba suggests either throwing them in the dishwasher, washing machine, or even in the microwave on high for 30 seconds. Sinks should be washed with a disinfectant like Clorox about once a week, he adds.

And as for those cutting boards: "There's about 400 times more fecal matter on a cutting board than on a toilet seat," Gerba says. Many people place raw meat on these boards, and then merely rinse them before putting them away or using them for other food. "Then you make a salad, and you've got salmonella salad," Gerba says. Disinfect, disinfect, disinfect. And if throwing the cutting board in the dishwasher is an option, do it. Go a step further, too, by assigning one cutting board just for produce, and another just for meat. "It's not a good idea to make your hamburger patties on the same board you make your salad," Gerba says. "Unless you're constipated, I wouldn't do it."

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Out and About. Prepare for betrayal. Germs thrive on the very e-reader you treasure, along with the tablet you saved up for, and the phone you can't put down. And think, when you place that phone to your mouth and breathe moist air, you're begging for phone acne, or "phacne." Regulary wipe these electronics with disinfectants.

Buses and trains also make excellent homes for germs, which is probably not a surprise to folks who have sat beside someone who coughed through the commute, or have gripped a community bar, railing, or handle for stabilization. Anywhere from 400 to 1,000 people ride a city bus each day, Gerba says, and they're bringing along their viruses.

Another germ hotspot is grocery stores, specifically the cart handles and self-checkout machines. Gerba doesn't even use self-checkouts anymore after studying the germs that live on these screens, likely because disinfecting them is low on employees' priority lists.

For mass transit, grocery stores, and another germ haven--elevators--Gerba suggests that folks arm themselves with hand sanitizer. "You can't disinfect everything you're going to touch; you're always gambling," he says. "But really, [hand sanitizer] is the best defense. You want the odds in your favor."