Belfast Telegraph

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The invisible germ warfare that's being waged in your home ... and how to win it

We encounter thousands of different germs every day, but do you know the difference between cleanliness and good hygiene? The distinction is a subtle one, but important. Arlene Harris finds out where the worst germs lurk and offers 10 tips to keep them at bay

Be aware: something may appear clean but may contain bacteria
Be aware: something may appear clean but may contain bacteria
Professor Martin Cormican
Key step: using gloves during cooking can help the spread of germs
Key step: using gloves during cooking can help the spread of germs

By Arlene Harris

My grandmother used to say that cleanliness is next to godliness, and without a doubt her generation understood the merits of having a clean house. Back then the majority of women spending their day ensuring that everything was shipshape - but it all may have been in vain.

Recent research from the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK has revealed that many people today are confused about what cleanliness means and how it differs from good hygiene.

Professor Martin Cormican, an expert in Antimicrobial Resistance and Infection Control, says hygiene is more important than something simply looking clean.

"The dictionary defines hygiene as conditions or practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease, especially through cleanliness," he says.

"So cleanliness is a key part of hygiene, but cleanliness is not always enough. Something may look clean and be clean in the ordinary sense of the word, but still have lots of bacteria and viruses present. In many settings this does not matter, but in some settings - particularly healthcare and food preparation - the fact that something looks clean is not enough, and a higher level of hygiene that may involve decontamination with heat or disinfectant may be needed. You can't decontaminate something if it is not clean, so cleanliness is the foundation of all hygiene."

Of the 2,000 people surveyed, 23% believed that children needed exposure to germs in order to build up their immune system, but experts say this is a "potentially harmful belief", which could lead to dangerous infections - and Professor Cormican agrees.

"This is often referred to as the hygiene hypothesis, and there is no definitive scientific evidence to prove that dirt increases the body's immune system," he says.

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"Reducing our personal hygiene, such as not washing hands before eating, is expected to simply increase the risk of infection without having any impact on allergies or immune disorders. Hygiene is essential for protecting vulnerable populations, such as older people, immune compromised people such as those undergoing chemotherapy and very young babies. Proper hand hygiene prevents the spread of infectious diseases and illnesses."

But while most of us know that washing hands, surfaces and kitchen cloths is crucial to good hygiene, there are still a lot of people who think this is not important.

The consultant microbiologist says the principal hazards are bacteria, fungi and viruses which are shed on to floors, surfaces and items people touch, cough, sneeze, spit on, lick or put into their mouths (as kids do).

"Bacteria, fungi, virus and also protozoan parasites may also come from animals and can be tracked into a house on boots, shoes and wellies," he adds. "Viruses that cause colds and flu-like illness, viral diarrhoea, viruses which cause warts, as well as bacteria which cause boils, diarrhoea and fungi which causes athletes foot can all shed and spread about.

"These bacteria, fungi or viruses may survive on floors, surfaces and objects for hours or days - many surviving longer on things that are moist and dirty. And if other people touch the floors surfaces or objects, they may catch the bacteria or virus and sometimes get an infection.

"Faeces is especially a problem as it's sticky and contains lots of bugs. A lot of disease is spread by the bug being spread in faeces and getting into someone else's mouth (faecal oral spread)."

Previous international studies have shown faecal contamination on hands, banknotes, kitchen taps, cleaning cloths, bar snacks, computer keyboards, handbags, mobile phones, counter tops and preparation surfaces in mobile kitchens.

Pretty shocking stuff, but experts say we shouldn't become too paranoid as with regular hand washing, most harmful germs will be eradicated.

"The larger the number of people using a facility or an item, the greater the opportunity for things to be shed and to spread," says Professor Cormican. "Sharing changing areas, bathing facilities and towels can spread infection - going barefoot in communal bathing areas is a risk for athlete's food and verruca. And if animals have access to children's play areas, that can also spread infection.

"But being out and about is good for your health, so it's a balance. Get out as much as you can, relax and enjoy it and know that it's okay to get your hands dirty as your skin and immune system will protect you from most things. However, wash your hands before you eat when you get home and after using the toilet.

"Also limit sharing personal stuff, like towels, with others, don't go barefoot in communal areas, eat and drink in places which appear to be clean or those you know to have good standards and if the facilities look dirty, avoid if at all possible."

But while it is important to be as hygienic as possible, some bacteria is good for us.

"The tiny creatures called bacteria and fungi have been around for billions of years, much longer than humans - they are our world's natural systems for recycling almost everything and the world would die without them," says the professor.

"Human health also depends on the balance between good bacteria and our body - we have about 10 times as many bacterial cells in and on our body as we have human cells. And on top of all that bacteria and fungi are key to making your glass of wine or beer and your favourite cheese. So most bacteria are good for us and for our world most of the time and the best thing to do is leave them alone."

10 tips for good hygiene

1. When you wake up in the morning don't rub your eyes, as according to a study by the Washington University School of Medicine, in a sample of bed sheets examined, 18% were found to be contaminated by strains of staphylococcus aureus.

2. Public transport is where we all mingle a little bit too closely and germs have the opportunity to be spread. So when you reach the office, make sure to wash your hands before starting work or grabbing some breakfast.

3. Computers, phones and mobiles are a constant in our office environment - we can't work without them. But research has shown that PCs, keyboards, phones are full of bacteria - a mouse has an average of 260 bacteria per centimetre squared, a keyboard has 511 and the mouthpiece of a telephone has an impressive 3,895. Make sure to clean your tech equipment. They are actually worse than a toilet seat which has eight bacteria per sq cm.

4. Don't touch the toilet seat with your hands if it's visibly dirty. Drying your hands with paper towels will reduce the bacterial count by 45-60% on your hands. However, using a hand dryer will increase the bacteria by up to 255% because it blows out bacteria already living in the conveniently, warm moist environment.

5. Clean your hands before eating, after using the toilet, after handling soil and after handling pets or livestock.

6. Use a tissue, or cough and sneeze into your arm, not your hand. Turn away from other people when sneezing, and use single-use tissues, disposing of the tissue immediately.

7. Stay home if you are sick (so you don't spread illness to other people).

8. If you're flying, be wary of airport security trays. Scientists in England and Finland discovered that the trays used to carry shoes and laptops carry more germs than toilet surfaces do.

9. If working with children, have them play with hard surface toys that can be easily cleaned.

10. Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth with your fingertips. Fingertips can spread infection if they are not clean (viruses can transfer from your hands and into the body).

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