Can you really catch a nasty bug from sitting on a public toilet seat or walking barefoot in a gym locker room? Unfortunately, yes, but there is a lot you can do to protect yourself. “Eighty percent of infectious illnesses like colds and flu are transmitted by contact. Good habits like washing your hands frequently can dramatically reduce the number of pathogenic, or illness-causing, germs you’re exposed to,” says Philip M. Tierno Jr., Ph.D., director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Medical Center in New York City and author of The Secret Life of Germs (Pocket Books, 2001). We asked the experts for their tips on ways to stay healthy in the five most germ-ridden places.
Wear flip-flops in the locker room and shower. This warm, damp environment is a breeding ground for fungi and viruses that cause conditions like athlete’s foot and plantar warts.
Put a towel on the locker-room bench before you sit down. If you're naked, you could pick up a bacterial infection like impetigo, which appears as coin-size patches of tiny blisters on the skin, or tinea cruris, a fungus of the genital area that causes an itchy, red rash, according to Tierno.
Sit on a towel instead of directly on the equipment. Clothes protect your skin to some extent; this helps even more. Infection-causing organisms can live on the equipment's surfaces and contaminate exposed skin.
Take a shower after your workout. It will wash away any bacteria or viruses you may have come in contact with. Also avoid touching your eyes, mouth, nose or genital area until you've washed your hands with warm, soapy water at the sink or when you take a shower, Tierno advises. Germs can easily enter these areas of the body, and you can pick up hepatitis A, staph or respiratory bacteria from the floor mats and exercise equipment (especially free weights, which are handled quite frequently).
Don't shave your legs before a pedicure. An outbreak of 110 bacterial skin infections in 2000 was traced to the whirlpool footbaths at a nail salon. Women who shaved beforehand were at greater risk, because shaving can nick skin and irritate hair follicles, making it easier for bacteria to enter the body. Also, be sure to ask how the foot spas are cleaned. The salon should drain and disinfect them between customers, according to the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology.
Check to see if tools are sterilized. Metal instruments should be immersed in disinfectant or heat-sterilized in a machine called an autoclave. Bring your own disposable implements, like emery boards and nail buffers. "If they're used on different people, these tools may spread nail fungi, staph bacteria or viruses," warns Rick Lopes, a spokesperson for the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology.
Make sure licenses are displayed. This indicates that employees have passed exams on sanitation and safety.
Put paper towels or a disposable liner on the seat. "It's not a complete barrier against germs, but it's an added measure of prevention," explains Tierno. You could get a bacterial infection if the seat has traces of sloughed-off skin cells or urine and fecal matter.
Flush and run. "When you flush, a fine mist filled with viruses and bacteria ranging from hepatitis A to E. coli and salmonella may be sprayed up to 20 feet away," says Tierno.
Wash your hands properly. The most effective method, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Wet your hands, apply soap, rub vigorously for 15 seconds, and rinse.
Choose your salad bar carefully. "Look for one with small containers of food that are constantly replenished. The frequent turnover helps curb unhealthy bacterial growth," explains Robert Gravani, Ph.D., a microbial food-safety expert and professor of food science at Cornell University.
Don't eat directly from communal plates or cartons if you’re with a group of people. How many times have you seen someone lick her fingers before reaching into a bag of movie theater popcorn? This may transfer salivary and skin germs like strep and staph, as well as cold, flu and stomach viruses. Pour the food directly onto your own plate or into another bag or cup instead.
Wash your hands before eating-especially if you've just handled money. A recent study found that 7 percent of dollar bills may be contaminated with staph or other bacteria. Carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your purse and use it when you don't have access to soap and water. Rub your hands together until the gel evaporates.
Try on swimsuits over your underwear. Those removable strips provide little protection against fecal bacteria or viruses like herpes, says Tierno. (If someone with an open lesion tried on the suit earlier, you could pick up the virus.) "Organisms on the fabric can easily enter your body if you're naked," he explains. Even bikini-cut panties serve as an added barrier.
Test makeup-counter samples on your hand or wrist. If you apply them to your eyes or mouth, you may pick up cold sores, conjunctivitis or eyelash lice from the previous shopper, according to Mary Jo DiMilia, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of medicine and pediatrics at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
Wear socks when you try on shoes. The insides of shoes can harbor athlete's foot fungus and plantar wart virus as well as other people's sloughed-off skin cells, which may contain bacteria, according to Tierno.