You've looked forward to your vacation for months, and the last thing you want to do is to get sick. But germs lurk in hotel rooms, airplanes, and cruise ships, and learning to avoid them is the secret to remaining healthy. Be wary of the following germy places:
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Airplanes. Airplanes are hotbeds for germs. Dry, recirculated air weakens your defenses and exposes you to other passengers' germs. A study in the Journal of Environmental Health Research suggested that your risk for catching a cold is up to 100 times higher on a plane than in your daily life. Your best defense against germs in the air is to eat a nutritious diet and get plenty of rest on the days before your flight. Also, be alert for these germ hotspots:
• Water. Humidity levels on airplanes are very low, and you can dehydrate quickly. You do need to drink plenty of liquids, and water is preferred, but when bottled water runs low, flight attendants may give passengers water from onboard tanks. Test have found they may contain E. coli, a common cause of food poisoning. Tea and coffee aren't safe either since they are brewed from the same water and don't usually reach temperatures high enough to kill the bacteria. A 2012 study by the EPA found that water from tanks in more than 10 percent of planes in the United States tested positive for coliform bacteria, indicating that E. coli may be present. Avoid risk by buying your own bottled water after you've cleared security and drinking only from prepackaged sodas and juices while on board.
• Blankets, pillows, and headphones. Appearances can be deceiving. A Wall Street Journal investigation found that some airlines waited from five to 30 days to clean their blankets. Just because it's encased in plastic doesn't mean it's clean — a study by a textile union found that instead of being washed after each use, some pillows, blankets, and headphones are simply repackaged. The study found blankets contained pseudomonas paucimobilis, which causes lung and eye infections.
• Bathrooms. Since there are about 50 people for each bathroom restroom — and up to 75 on budget airlines — they are swarming with germs. A study by Charles Gerba ("Dr. Germ") of the University of Arizona found that most bathrooms tested had E. coli bacteria. About 30 percent of toilet handles, faucet handles, and sinks were contaminated, as well as 20 percent of toilet seats. Use paper towels to turn off faucets and open doors, and use hand sanitizer for extra protection.
• Food trays. A study by University of Arizona researchers found that 60 percent of food trays on airplanes carry dangerous germs, including Methicillian-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) bacteria, flu virus, and norovirus — highly contagious viruses that cause vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. Wipe down food trays with antibacterial wipes. While you're at it, wipe the arm rests and seat controls, overhead bin handle, and give the entertainment remote a good scrubbing.
• Seat pockets. It's common for airline workers to find used tissues and dirty diapers stuffed into seat pockets. Don't use them. A study released just this week found that MRSA survived for 168 hours on seat pockets.
Hotels. Tests on surfaces in hotel rooms found that just because a room looks clean doesn't mean it is, and studies have found that germs are often spread from surface to surface through cleaning. For instance, if the same sponge is used to wipe the toilet seat and then is used to clean the toilet handle and sink faucets, you may transfer E. coli bacteria to your hands the next time you flush the toilet and wash your hands. Although other places in the room are likely to have germs, the following may be the worst:
• Light switches. As soon as you flip the light switch to your home away from home, you're picking up dangerous germs. A University of Houston study of hotels in three states found that light switches had bacteria — including E. coli — at 20 times the rate permissible in hospitals, and the main switch was the germiest of all. Clean all switches, including the bedside lamp switch, and door knobs with disinfectant wipes.
• TV remotes. Almost all studies find TV remotes to be one of the most germ-laden items in a hotel room. One study found the average hotel remote contained 67.6 colony-forming units (CFU) of bacteria per cubic centimeter. This compared with cleanliness recommendations in hospitals of 5 CFU. Either clean with a disinfectant wipe, or drop it into a small, clear plastic bag. You'll still be able to work the remote while "bagging" the germs. Telephones also carry their share of germs, so give them a quick disinfecting swipe if you plan to use yours.
• Bedspreads. Bedspreads are usually not washed after guests check out — they may not be changed for months — and tests have found traces of a variety of icky bodily fluids on them left by previous occupants. Remove bedspreads, comforters, duvets, and decorative cushions.
• Bathroom floors and carpets. Some studies have shown shower floors to be fairly clean, but bathroom floors are not. Carpets are usually quickly vaccumed between guests and rarely shampooed, and they often carry mold, bacteria, and fungus. Fight back by never walking barefoot — pack a pair of flip-flops and use them.
Cruise ships. Thousands of people living in a confined area provide the perfect environment for the rapid spread of diseases, especially viral respiratory infections. Cruise ships work hard to disinfect ships, including having workers stand at the entrances to eating areas with antibacterial sprays. Still, outbreaks of the norovirus make news every year. To protect yourself, follow all of the suggestions for hotels (a cruise ship is actually a floating hotel) in addition to watching out for the following hotspots:
• Buffets. Wash your hands with hand sanitizers before each meal, and use napkins to avoid touching the handles of serving utensils. For better protection (although your fellow passengers may give you a few odd looks) bring along a few clear plastic gloves — the type food industry workers wear — to use at buffets.
• Elevator buttons. It's almost impossible to avoid elevator buttons on ships, but they're a hotbed of germs. Use either your knuckle (you aren't likely to touch your knuckle to your eye or mouth and easily spread germs), your elbow, or just see if someone else will punch the button you need.
• Hand rails. You can't avoid touching the hand rails on ships, but they're usually covered with germs. Wash your hands immediately, or use hand sanitizer.
• Restrooms. Surfaces from the flush handles to the faucet handles are usually germ hotspots. A study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases found that only 37 percent of toilet seats, flush handles, and door handles were cleaned daily. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water after using the restroom facilities. Use paper towels to dry your hands and to open the door.
• Hot tubs. According to Mayo Clinic, outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease have been traced to hot tubs and whirlpools on cruise ships. Other bacteria, including E. coli, thrive in hot tubs and whirlpools, and urinary tract infections and skin infections have been traced to them. To be safe, avoid them.
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