These days more than ever we're obsessed with dangerous germs. Yes, they exist elsewhere, but the leading bacteria incubators are within your home.
"What's dirtier than your toilet seat? Your kitchen," says Dr. Reginald Nguyen, a family medicine doctor with Memorial Hermann Medical Group Sugar Land Primary Care.
From most to least, here are the top 10 dirtiest things you can touch at home — and how you can reduce germs before walking out the door.
1. Dish sponges or rags
Why: Dirt plus moisture equals bad news.
How to handle: Replace sponges regularly or soak them in diluted bleach for five minutes to eliminate mold, yeast, and coliform bacteria. "That's enough for most germs to get killed," Dr. Nguyen says. Use paper towels to dry rather than a cloth.
How often: Replace sponges at least every couple of weeks if you don't soak them in bleach more frequently.
2. Kitchen sinks
Why: This is the second highest breeding ground for e.coli, salmonella, and other germs that lead to gastrointestinal ailments. It's where you rinse fruit and dishes, prepare raw meat, and dispose of egg shells and other bacteria factories.
How to handle: Clean sinks before and after each use — and dry them. "Moisture makes germs grow," says Dr. Nguyen.
How often: Every time.
3. Toothbrush holders
Why: "Nasty germs collect," says Dr. Nguyen. "Generally we brush our teeth twice daily, and while we rinse the brush, we let it drip. Our mouths have lots of bacteria, between our gums and the roots of our teeth." Toothbrush holders are third highest in yeast and mold per square centimeter.
How to handle: Wash the brush holder well and then run it through the dishwasher. "The heat and pressure of dishwashers kill bacteria," says Dr. Nguyen.
How often: Once weekly.
4. Pet bowls
Why: "We often refill their bowls without washing them as much as we would our own plates," Dr. Nguyen says. "Imagine us eating dry food from the same bowl each day without cleaning it." Add Fido or Mittens' slobber, coming from germy mouths (see toothbrushes).
How to handle: Clean the bowls and pop them in the dishwasher.
How often: If not daily, then often.
5. Coffee makers
Why: The reservoir which contains water rarely is washed, for fear of harming electrical components. "Over time, mold and other microorganisms grow," Dr. Nguyen says.
How to handle: Ideally, buy makers with removable reservoirs you can wash. Empty and refill the water.
How often: If possible, replace water daily, and once weekly clean the maker and dry it thoroughly. If the machine is dishwasher safe, run it through with your other dishes.
6. Bathroom faucet handles
Why: They're more contaminated than toilet seats? Yes. "Everyone uses the restroom several times daily. We turn the handle with dirty hands, wash them, and then reinfect ourselves turning the water off," says Dr. Nguyen.
How to handle: Use your elbow to turn off the water (as you see surgeons do on TV shows). If your fixtures have knobs that twist, clean them before you wash your hands. In public, after drying your hands you can use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.
How often: Every time. And scrub your bathroom at least weekly.
7. Kitchen counters
Why: "We cook and clean our food there," Dr. Nguyen says. "Things splatter."
How to handle: Clean countertops before and after each meal with disinfectant wipes.
How often: Every time.
8. Cutting boards
Why: The germs in food transfer to boards, with the worst offenders being boards of wood. "The spaces in wood house bacteria," Dr. Nguyen says.
How to handle: Wash them thoroughly and use different boards for meat than fruits and vegetables so you don't cross-contaminate.
How often: Run through your dishwasher at least once weekly.
9. Toilet seats
Why: What many might think is the biggest culprit isn’t. "Most people clean toilets once a week," says Dr. Nguyen.
How to handle: Always put the toilet seat down before flushing, because otherwise invisible germs can spread five feet. Cover seats in public restrooms.
How often: Every time.
Why: Where hasn't your phone been? How many times have you touched it without having cleaned your hands? And when was the last time you wiped down your phone?
How to handle: Clean with disinfectant wipes.
How often: At least daily.
And here are a few surprises:
11. Bed sheets
Why: "We spend lots of time in our beds," Dr. Nguyen says. "You shower yourself and clean your clothes daily or almost daily. But we forget bedding, which can get moist when we sweat."
How to handle: Change your sheets.
How often: At least weekly.
12. Birthday cakes
Why: Unhappy birthdays can come from an astonishing germ farm: birthday cakes. The cause: When we blow out candles we expel a mist that lands on the icing.
How to handle: Either skip candles — or accept the risk.
How often: Every day is someone's birthday and worth celebrating!
13. Work spaces
Also keep in mind while at work: keyboards, the break room microwave, and refrigerator doors and elevator buttons.
Good practices to protect yourself and others
Wash hands thoroughly — and properly. Begin by running your hands under clean water. Apply soap to your palms and lather up. Rub hands vigorously, especially when you don't have soap. Scrub the fronts and backs of your hands, as well as between fingers and underneath fingernails. Rinse hands well, then completely dry with a clean towel.
"Many times we don't dry our hands completely," Dr. Nguyen says. "The next thing you touch, the moisture picks up germs."
The process should take 20 seconds, or about the time to hum or sing the "Happy Birthday" song at least twice.
If you can't wash your hands, use rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol. Minimize touching your face, as you're introducing bacteria from other sources. And you also expel germs when you cough, sneeze, or blow your nose. Be sure to cover your mouth whether at home or in public.
Clean kitchen surfaces before and after you eat. Clean your home at least once weekly.
For more COVID-19 information and resources visit memorialhermann.org/coronavirus.