You're miserable.You're sneezing and coughing, your eyes are tearing up, your head aches — no, your whole body aches. And it seems like you've been sick all winter with one bug or another. You'd do anything to stay healthy.
Not to worry — you don't have to live in a bubble or hermetically seal your home to protect yourself from the kinds of bacteria and viruses that lead to illness. With a few strategic precautions, you can minimize the spread of germs. And while everyone is bound to get sick at some point, these precautions may help you avoid getting the next "bug that's going around."
Sanitize your sponge: a recent study found that microwaving your sponge for at least two minutes killed more than 99 percent of the bacteria, viruses, and parasites living on it. To guard against the risk of fire, researchers say the sponge needs to be completely wet. Sponges should also have no metallic content. Be careful when removing it from the microwave as it will be very hot.
Don't forget to clean your vaccum and air filters, reminds Dani Brost of Merry Maids in Medford — you'd be surprised how dirty they can get, and all that dust, dander, and bacteria gets blown around every time your vacuum runs and the fan turns on in your heating system.
Consider making your household a shoe-free zone, at least for family members. This way you can avoid trekking germs in from the street. Pile some slippers by the door and get in the habit of slipping them on when you come home. An added bonus: less time spent sweeping and mopping. And if you decide that the shoe-free policy should extend to guests, hang a friendly reminder sign by the door.
Perhaps the simplest step you can take is to wash your hands frequently, since germs are so effectively spread through touching. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guide, "Seven Keys to a Safer, Healthier Home," published through the Ounce of Prevention campaign, recommends several steps to keep your home clean. Tip number one? Wash your hands often. The CDC recommends washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (or as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice, which will not only clean your hands but might also make you feel a bit cheerier!). Rinse well, and if possible use a paper towel to turn off the faucet.
Given the efficacy of washing hands in preventing the spread of germs, you may be tempted to ramp up the hygiene and use antibacterial soap. Not so fast, advises Dr. Valerie Ljungkvist, a pediatrician at Southern Oregon Pediatrics in Medford. "Antibacterial soaps do not kill viruses, which are the cause of colds and flu," she warns, while "normal hand washing removes viruses from the skin." And while there are compelling reasons to use antibacterial soaps in medical settings and with certain conditions, there is some concern in the medical community that "the unnecessary use of antibacterial soaps may cause resistant bacteria." Ultimately, says Dr. Ljungkvist, "frequent hand-washing with regular soap and water is all that is really needed to control bacteria."
After hand-washing, the most effective steps you can take to control germs in your home are in the kitchen and bathroom, although the relative cleanliness of the two rooms may surprise you. Dr. Charles Gerba of the University of Arizona, a scientist whose work in the secret hiding places of bacteria and viruses has earned him the nickname "Dr. Germ," has found that the kitchen can actually harbor far more germs than the bathroom. And when people use sponges to clean counters, the germs introduced from food preparation can be spread throughout the kitchen. In fact, Dr. Gerba's tests have shown that your kitchen sponge may have more germs than a toilet seat, which is why it's so important to sanitize sponges regularly to avoid spreading food-borne illnesses (for tips, see the sidebar).
That's not to say, however, that the bathroom is a germ-free zone. Dr. Gerba found that the spray from a toilet flush can remain airborne for more than two hours, settling on everything from your washcloth to your toothbrush. The solution to this unsavory situation? Simply close the lid before flushing. This is especially important when anyone in the house is suffering from a stomach virus.
Next to the kitchen and bathroom, commonly touched hot spots should claim your attention. According to Maia Black of Conscious Cleaners in Ashland, an excellent way to stop the spread of germs is to focus on "surfaces that are handled frequently, such as doorknobs, cabinet doors, refrigerator handles, faucet handles, toilet handles, etc." Rather than replacing germs with dangerous chemicals, however, Black recommends using a spray cleaner with natural sanitizing properties that can be found in certain essential oils, like lavender, lemon, eucalyptus, tea tree, and thyme, or a scrub made from baking soda, soap and essential oils.
While we can never make our homes completely germ free (nor would we want to, since some exposure to germs may help our immune systems), with just a little effort in the right places, we can at least prevent them from becoming petri dishes teeming with the sources of another cold or flu.