Are You Flu-Season Ready? Test Your Germ IQ

When the hacking and sniffling season begins, most Americans unleash their inner “Germ Freak”, employing a variety of personal germ avoidance habits to keep them healthy. Unfortunately, some of our strategies are useless at best, and some may, in fact, be harmful at worst.

How do your habits fare?

Do you stock up on antibacterial soap during the cold and flu season? Americans spent over $540 million on antibacterial soaps and products in 2004 – a hefty price tag that doesn’t protect against colds and flu, which are caused by viruses.

A March 2004 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that people who used antibacterial soaps instead of regular soap had the same number of colds, runny noses, sore throats and fevers. Even worse, if your hands get chaffed from overusing strong soaps, you make it easier for harmful bacteria to enter your skin. Better to seek out regular hand soap.

Do you “hover” over the toilet seat instead of sitting on it? While 50% of Americans won’t sit on a public toilet seat, your risk of catching something from one is so minimal that you can go ahead and take a seat. Studies by microbiologist Charles Gerba, Ph.D., confirm that the faucet handle in most bathrooms at work have 400 times more germs than the toilet seat.

Do you take extra doses of echinacea during flu season? A recent trial from the University of Virginia provided compelling evidence that echinacea does not prevent or alleviate symptoms of the common cold. However, critics of this study say the dose used was too low. If you’ve found echinacea works for you, take it; if it hasn’t, your time and money would be better spent elsewhere.

Do you use a paper towel to open doorknobs? This is a great habit since only 16% of Americans wash their hands enough to rid them of germs; just be sure to discard the dirty towel when you’re done or you’ll be bringing the bathroom germs with you. Also use the paper towel to turn off the faucet when you’re done washing your hands because the faucet handle is one of the germiest places in a public bathroom.

Do you wipe your shopping cart handle with a disinfecting wipe before you touch it? This is a great habit since Dr. Gerba’s studies found that shopping cart handles failed more hygiene tests than public bathrooms, with 54% of them testing positive for body fluids. (Sure makes you think twice about sampling the deli turkey!) If you don’t want to use a wipe, don’t eat anything in the supermarket until after you wash your hands. After all, 80% of all infectious disease is spread by hand contact, so watch where you put yours this season.

Allison Janse is the author of The Germ Freak’s Guide to Outwitting Colds & Flu (HCI Books, September 2005). She’s the mother of 3-year-old twins and lives with her husband in Deerfield Beach, FL. The book is available through and

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