Northside Hospital - The Truth About Germs

The Truth About Germs

Can we avoid getting sick? Are all germs bad? Get the (sometimes icky) low-down

You are covered in germs. That pen? Germy. The doorknob? Eww. Everything’s covered in germs, tiny organisms we can’t see that can (and will) make us sick. It’s tempting to give in to this advice: Don’t touch anything. That’s not practical, of course. Best to brush up on your germ IQ instead.

TRUE OR FALSE: Hand sanitizer is just as good as washing with soap and water.

False (for the most part). “Good old-fashioned soap and water is better” as long as you’re not a wimpy washer, says Stanley Maloy, PhD, a fellow of the American Society for Microbiology. “Sometimes when people wash, they do it for five seconds.”

That’s not good enough. What makes soap-and-water washing effective is that it’s a mechanical process—you’re actually rubbing germs off of your hands. So spend a little time on your scrub to make sure you’re getting clean.

In the absence of soap and water, experts say an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is better than nothing.

TRUE OR FALSE: Germs and viruses thrive in people, not on objects.

False. The viruses that cause colds and other illnesses can survive for hours on a doorknob or an elevator button.

“If somebody coughs into their hand and gets mucus on their hands, that protects the virus,” explains Philip M. Tierno, PhD, the author of The Secret Life of Germs.

That person touches an elevator button, which becomes the recipient of a rhinovirus (common cold) or coronavirus (respiratory illness). Then you come along and touch it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, influenza can live on hard surfaces—books, coffee pots, ATMs—from two to eight hours. And it takes chemical germicides that include chlorine, iodine or alcohol to wipe them out.

“It’s very important to wash your hands—you’ve touched an awful lot. And you should not touch your eyes, mouth or nose,” Tierno says. Those direct portals to your body are the way most viruses enter.

TRUE OR FALSE: A dog’s mouth is cleaner than his owner’s.

False. Of course, it depends on the person and the dog. But dogs are willing to eat gross things that humans are not. That includes feces.

That generally makes your pooch’s mouth dirtier than yours, though Maloy offers a caveat: If someone has gum disease, his or her mouth might be harboring just as much problematic bacteria. Bottom line, though: No need to share mutt-to-mouth kisses.

TRUE OR FALSE: You get more viruses in the winter.

True, maybe. While it’s a myth that you’ll catch a cold if you forget your hat (sorry, Mom), it’s true that viruses survive better in colder weather.

We help them spread because we spend more time inside together, sharing space. Indoor heat wicks moisture from our noses, making us more susceptible, Tierno says. “The circumstances are better to transmit the infection,” he says.

TRUE OR FALSE: All germs are bad.

False. “They are really important. Without bacteria, we would be very, very sick,” Maloy says.
Our bodies need exposure to germs and bacteria to build strong immune systems. In the absence of everyday germs, our bodies wouldn’t be trained to fight when they need to. 

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