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What's filthier than a toilet seat?

When to worry about germs

Created date

June 24th, 2015
fish in dirty water
fish in dirty water

Bacteria and viruses are everywhere when you travel. Doubtless you’ve heard stories about people getting sick from the air inside of an airplane cabin, or that the remote control in a hotel room is the dirtiest surface imaginable.

Experts from the Infectious Disease Society of America say that very few surfaces are absolutely clean, and unless you happen to have sophisticated sterilizing equipment in your carry-on bag, those areas are likely to stay dirty. 

“It’s not as though the surfaces you encounter on vacation are more unsanitary than what you encounter every day in your community,” says Cheryl Ziemba, M.D., medical director at , an Erickson Living community in Pompton Plains, N.J. “But with age, the immune system isn’t as hearty as it used to be, so you need to be careful.”

The dirtiest of the dirty

When flying, contrary to what some people believe, you don’t need to be concerned about the air in the cabin—it is filtered, which may make it cleaner than the air in some restaurants. Your danger zones, however, are tray tables, blankets, pillows, and headphones—unless they are sealed in plastic.

The onboard restroom is another story. Although they are regularly cleaned, the high volume of people who use them causes germ buildup. Washing your hands in the sink can help, but you might want to use a little hand sanitizer once you get back to your seat.

Once you arrive at your hotel room, watch out for the remote control. It can often be the most unsanitary surface in the room, according to infectious disease experts. Not only is it handled by numerous healthy people, but anyone who is sick on vacation is likely to hop in bed, grab the remote, and watch movies or TV for at least part of the day.  

Other objects in your hotel room that may be a source of significant amounts of bacteria are the bedspread, drinking glasses, ice buckets, and telephone. “Take a look around your hotel room,” Ziemba says. “Does the bathroom look clean? Is the furniture dusty? Even if the main areas look okay, it can’t hurt to use a disinfecting wipe on the smaller items, such as the remote.”

Throughout your stay, don’t forget the buttons and touchscreens found in elevators, ATMs, vending machines, and crosswalks, to name just a few. Although it may not always work on a touchscreen, infectious disease experts say instead of using your finger to press buttons, use your knuckle. 

Dangerous places

Many vacations involve use of public swimming areas. “Moist surfaces breed fungus that can lead to athlete’s foot,” Ziemba explains. “Wear protective footwear such as pool shoes.”

No doubt you’ve heard about the numerous gastrointestinal infections that seem to plague cruise ships. “Before cruising, find out if the ship’s sanitation procedures are up to code, and ask about when it was last inspected,” Ziemba advises.

If you are traveling to another country, you need to think about different threats. “Know beforehand whether you can drink tap water or if it’s safe to eat fresh produce,” Ziemba says. “Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about any disease outbreaks that may have occurred recently in the region of your destination, and get any pertinent immunizations at least two weeks before you leave.”

An infection-free trip

Studies show that washing your hands before touching your face or before eating and drinking can cut your risk of infection drastically.

“We touch our faces more than we think,” Ziemba says. “It’s hard to avoid, so if you aren’t close to a sink, use hand sanitizer intermittently throughout the day.”

Overdoing the hand sanitizer, however, can make matters worse. “Regardless of whether it contains moisturizers, the high alcohol content in hand sanitizers can dry your hands out,” Ziemba says. “Dryness can lead to tiny breaks in the skin, which create a portal for bacteria.”

The same goes for frequent hand washing with harsh soaps found in public restrooms. Carry a small bottle of hand cream with you to use every now and then.

Staying hydrated is necessary for good health, but remembering to drink water regularly throughout your vacation can be a challenge. Even if you are stateside, you might want to carry your own bottles of water. Some research shows that water fountain spigots can carry more bacteria and viruses than toilet seats.

Prepare beforehand

“Practically all older adults have some diminished immune system functioning, but certain people need to be especially vigilant about avoiding infection,” Ziemba says. “This includes people with diabetes, people taking steroid medications or certain medications for autoimmune diseases, and people who have undergone recent chemotherapy or radiation.”

“Do as much as you can to protect yourself in the weeks before you leave,” Ziemba says. “Eat well, stay hydrated, and get enough sleep, which may be difficult if you have to deal with jet lag later on.”  

Be ready for the worst case scenario. “If you need medical care while traveling, have important information with you such as a list of your medical problems, medications, allergies, doctor’s name, and emergency contact people,” Ziemba advises.

Finally, don’t let a fear of infection interfere with your vacation enjoyment. “The germs are always going to be around,” Ziemba says. “Be aware of your environment and use common sense hygiene. After all, you can’t travel in a bubble.”