In the wake of a Cornell University study of germs in the New York City subway system, City Lab interviewed an epidemiologist – an expert in disease patterns and health risks – to find out whether the things people commonly do to avoid germs actually work.
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The Cornell study, by the way, found that the large majority of the subway system germs were harmless, or even beneficial, to humans. What does the expert say about our standard efforts to avoid germs that are bad for us?
According to the City Lab article, wearing a surgical mask provides some minimal benefit, but not in the way you might think. Surgical masks aren’t air tight, so they don’t keep 100 percent of the germs from escaping your nose and mouse. Plus, you’re carrying plenty of germs on your hands and elsewhere on your body – places that a mask does not cover. When worn by folks exhibiting symptoms of illness, however, masks to have the benefit of alerting other, healthy people to stay away.
What about hovering over a public toilet or flushing with your foot? The expert interviewed for the City Lab article says your chances of getting sick from a toilet seat are “infinitesimally small.” Kicking the toilet flusher just gets germs on your foot instead of your hand. Better to flush with your hand, and wash your hands after using (and flushing) the potty.
How about alcohol-based hand sanitizer as a substitute for hand washing? According to the CDC, hand sanitizers like Purell are almost as good as hand washing. But, it’s more important to avoid putting germ-laden hands around your eyes and mouth before you’re able to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer.
What to Do?
According to the City Lab article, what really works to avoid germs are the standard things experts have been saying for years. Wash your hands before preparing food and after using the bathroom. Stay away from sick people. Stop biting your nails and touching your face. Eat right, exercise, don’t smoke and get plenty of sleep to keep your immune system strong.
Also, keep in mind that not all germs are bad, and we encounter scads of germs all day, every day. You can’t completely avoid germs, nor do you need to.