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How to stop worrying and relearn to love germs


hand about to grab a public handrail

Photo: Photograph by Nixx (Shutterstock)

Concerns about germs have shaped the last year and a half of everyone’s life, one germ in particular: the virus that causes COVID-19. But the billions of other bacteria, viruses and microbes around us haven’t exactly ceased to exist. What should we really be afraid of? And how to protect yourself without abusing it?

I read this today’s article on office germs with a little nostalgia “nature heals”. Remember when a critical part of the news cycle was for local news crews to stamp a category of items and declare them dirtier than a toilet? Looks like we’re back.

We are always surrounded by germs, and that’s normal

Have you ever been outdoors with children? Sooner or later one of them will complain about an ant crawling on or near them. If you are the parent, they will expect you to do something about it. And then you have to explain that we are on the outside, and the outside is where insects live.

Likewise, there is no need to be shocked by the presence of germs in your home or on surfaces that you touch frequently. This is where they live.

Bacteria and other microbes inhabit all corners of the earth. They live on our skin and in our body, in miniature ecosystems that we call our “microbiome”. Some of them cause illness, but most are bystanders.

So what about all these bacteria on your desk, or your kitchen counter, or whatever? Most often, we took them there. They did not march like a small invading army from Microbe Central; it was just the germs that were already on our skin, and then we touched things and left a few behind.

As microbiologist Mark O. Martin told us in a previous germ craze (this one on hand dryers in public restrooms), “You have germs all over your skin, but that doesn’t stop you from holding your hand.”

What is really worth doing

Now that we’ve established that we’re surrounded by mostly harmless germs, let’s talk about what we can do to protect ourselves from those who might make us sick.

Be careful with raw meat and other food safety hazards

Some foods can be contaminated with harmful bacteria, such as salmonella in raw chicken and eggs, E. coli in beef, etc. This is why it is important to wash your hands after preparing these foods, and to wash or sanitize any utensils and surfaces that these foods have touched during the process. (Hot, soapy water is good enough for most cookware, but if you prefer to use disinfectant on your countertops, that’s fine too.)

Wash your hands often enough

In addition to washing your hands after touching raw meat, you should also wash your hands after touching garbage, pets or animal-related items (such as their trash or food bowls), diapers, real dirt (you have no idea how many germs are in the dirt) and after using the bathroom. The CDC has more guidelines in their hand washing guide here.

It is also a good idea to wash your hands before eating, to make sure that anything you have touched does not end up in your mouth.

Fairly frequent hand washing will also keep the most disgusting germs away from surfaces like your desk, because as you will recall, we mainly got them there via our own dirty hands.

Take precautions with people who are or may be sick

The problem with germs that make people sick is that we tend to catch them from other sick people. If your child has diarrhea, be careful about cleaning the bathroom. (Now is a good time to use a suitable disinfectant, like bleach).

Some of the things we’ve learned from COVID will also be helpful here. Wearing a mask in public can help keep your germs away from others if you are sick; it can also help keep you from getting sick, even from colds and flu.

The cleaning of surfaces and the use of a hand sanitizer have been shown to not be particularly important in preventing the spread of COVID, but other illnesses like colds, flu and diarrheal illnesses do spread by contact with the surface, so hand hygiene and regular (non-disinfectant) cleaning of frequently touched surfaces are good habits to follow.

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