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Putting Germs in their Place

Strategies for keeping germs at bay during the cold and flu season

Experts agree that frequent handwashing is one of the first lines of defense against colds and flu.

But no matter how many times you wash your hands, there are always some sneaky little germs lurking around to hitch a ride on your skin. They loiter on shopping cart handles, linger on light switches, lurk about the phone and even hang around on the remote controls.

The length of time that cold or flu germs can survive outside the body on these or other surfaces varies greatly. But the suspected range is from a few seconds to 48 hours – depending on the specific virus and the type of surface. Flu viruses tend to live longer on surfaces than cold viruses do. And it's suspected that cold and flu viruses live longer on nonporous surfaces, such as plastic, metal or wood, than they do on porous surfaces, such as fabrics, skin or paper.

When killing surface germs is your goal, look for products that contain a disinfectant. Some of the more frequently used active ingredients are sodium hypochlorite, ethanol, pine oil, hydrogen peroxide, citric acid and quats (quaternary ammonium compounds).

Products that say "Disinfectant" on the label are required to meet government specifications. To be sure the product has met all government requirements for effectiveness, look for an EPA Registration Number on the label. You must follow the product label instructions exactly for the disinfectant to be effective. Your choices include:

  • Chlorine bleach. It disinfects when mixed and used properly. Read the label for instructions.
  • Disinfectant cleaners. These dual purpose products contain ingredients that help remove soil as well as kill germs.
  • Disinfectants. These products are designed to be effective against the germs indicated on their labels. Surfaces should be clean prior to disinfecting.

Be Vigilant

While you can't control every germ in your environment, it makes good sense to defend against the germs that can make you sick. Be particularly vigilant during the fall and winter months, when colds and flu are at their peak. And even if you think you're savvy about germ control, Nancy Bock, Senior Vice President of Education at the American Cleaning Institute, has identified a few "hot spots" you may have overlooked:

  • If you take small children to the supermarket, use an antibacterial wipe on the cart handle before settling the child down in the cart.
  • Be aware of what you do with your hands. Even the unconscious act of rubbing your eyes can transfer germs from your hands into your system. Small children are notorious for putting germ-laden hands in their mouth, eyes and nose. But, while adults should know better, that isn't always the case.
  • If communal snacks are part of your office culture, two things should be constant on the snack table: handwipes and bakery tissue paper. The former will remind people to clean their hands before dipping into the donut box; the latter, which are available from restaurant supply houses, will help insure that those hands, clean or dirty, don't touch other people's food.
  • Steer clear of germs. When you get back in your car after being out and about, clean your hands with a handwipe or alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Then use an antibacterial wipe to clean your steering wheel.
  • If someone in your household has a cold or the flu, position antibacterial wipes in strategic places around the home and encourage everyone to use them frequently on common-touch surfaces, like the television remote, faucet handles, doorknobs and light switches.

Read more about Cold & Flu Prevention

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