Germs are everywhere — it’s just a fact of life that we all have to deal with. But college studentsseem to deal with more than their fair share of germs, living and studying in close quarters with plenty of people on campus, many of whom are learning how to clean up after themselves for the first time since leaving home. That means dorm rooms, cafeterias, classrooms, computer labs, and the library are all ripe with bacteria just waiting to be picked up. It’s scary when you think about it, but the more you know, the better you can protect yourself. Read on, and we’ll discuss 20 incredibly germy places and things that exist on your college campus, and how you can protect yourself against the evils of their bacteria.
For many college students, their bed is like home base: the one place that really and truly only belongs to you, particularly for those living in a shared dorm. So you may be surprised to find out that you’re sharing your bed with bacteria, yeast, and fungi. At least they’re not bed bugs, but these live colonies can build up into the hundreds of thousands, and even millions in the worst offenders. In the SleepBetter.org Investigates: Fungus Among Usstudy, Dr. Lisa Shives found a college senior’s pillow that had 170 million potential bacteria counts, as well as almost 40 million potential yeast and mold counts. These included shigella, known to cause dysentery, as well as cladosporium molds, which can, under the right circumstances, cause skin lesions, asthma, and even pulmonary infections. But the good news is that you can rest easy at night by regularly washing your sheets, changing your pillow, showering at night, and not allowing your pets (or anyone else) to sleep in your bed, all of which can dramatically cut down the ickiness that lives on your sheets.
This one should be no surprise. One of the germiest places in college is attached to you: your hands. But not just your hands, everyone else’s as well. You may or may not be shaking lots of hands in college, but inevitably, you’ll come in contact with the hands of others, even if it’s once removed. We’ll cover several of the surfaces you’ll be sharing hand germs with, but trust us on this, you want to keep your hands clean. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap each time you go to the bathroom and before you eat or touch your face. Carry hand sanitizer with you in case you can’t make it to a sink, and wear gloves in the wintertime to form a barrier (just don’t forget to remove them, and wash them regularly).
Any place that people sweat is bound to be a little germier than usual, and treadmills are on that list for sure. Bacteria can live on treadmills and other gym equipment for hours or even days, carrying Hepatitis B and more. But experts believe that the benefit of using treadmills outweighs the risk. Philip Tierno, author of The Secret Life of Germs reminds readers, "of the 60,000 or so germs that people may come in contact with, only about 1 percent are potentially dangerous." And Dr. David Nieman at the Human Performance Laboratory believes that exercising can help you avoid colds during the flu season, with "at least a 30-minute brisk walk" on a near-daily basis. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind. Use antibacterial wipes and several towels (one for equipment, one for you, and one for the shower), and encourage gym staff to clean treadmills and other equipment frequently.
The computer lab seems like a pretty innocuous space, until you realize that other students have had their hands all of the keyboard and mouse you’re putting your fingertips on right now. The fact is that you could rub your hands all over a toilet seat and still pick up fewer germs than if you typed your essay on a public computer keyboard. In fact, one study reported 60 times more germs per square inch on keyboards than public restroom toilets. It’s a scary thought, but you don’t have to feel hopeless when you sit down to work at the computer. Simply take a little time to wipe down your keyboard and mouse before diving in to your work, and wash your hands as you leave the lab. Doing so will go a long way to keeping the germs at bay.
Beer pong cups
A college party staple, beer pong sure is fun, and if you really enjoy it, it’s probably best that you don’t continue reading this point. Because while beer pong is great for spreading good cheer and camaraderie, it’s also amazingly adept at spreading germs. Ping pong balls used in the game are not likely to be cleaned, and even then, will almost certainly hit the floor at some point. That ball ends up in a water cup that after a few rounds is filled with E.coli, salmonella, and pneumonia, bouncing its way right into beer cups. Although it’s tough to keep things sanitary, you can take a few steps to make things better. Change out water cups and ping pong balls frequently, and instead of drinking out of beer cups the ball went into, pour that beer into your own cup.
Office desks often end up on lists for germ hot spots, but you may not realize that this also applies to desks in your college classroom. Just think of all the different people who have sat in the very same desk you’re in all week. Depending on your school’s cleaning schedule, you could be in up to several days’ worth of other people’s germs during each class. Lovely. Just like keyboards, desks often have more bacteria than a toilet seat, 400 times more to be exact. And if your school or professor allows eating in class, the number of germs multiplies, with a higher risk for E.coli and salmonella. You might get some strange looks for wiping down desks before you sit down, and it’s not necessary to go that far. But it is a good practice to remember to not touch your eyes, mouth, or nose, and wash your hands regularly throughout your school day, especially before eating. You may also want to be careful about letting things that have been on classroom desks (like your books and notebooks) be set down on your bed or eating areas.
The dirtiest thing on campus just might be hanging out in your backpack (which is also dirty). Microbiologist Chuck Gerba tested 25 mobile phones, and found staph bacteria growing on almost half. One had between 10 and 50 million bacteria present. Staph can cause skin infections, and even meningitis, an infection that is especially scary on a college campus. Why are cell phones so dirty? They come into frequent contact with your hands and face, and they are often warm from both battery activity and being held. Put it in your pocket where your phone warms with body heat, and the germs will continue to grow even more. And considering that cell phones are often held right next to your face and near your mouth, it’s easy to see how you could get sick from your phone. What’s a phone loving college student to do? The easiest solution is to avoid sharing your phone, and remembering to wipe it down frequently with anti-bacterial wipes. You may also be able to find phones that offer an anti-microbial coating to help prevent the growth of bacteria.
Yes, your trusty backpack is not just home to your books and lunch, it’s also home to plenty of germs. Think of all the places you set your backpack down: the classroom floor, in the grass, on the bus, bathroom counters, and even locker room benches, many of which have an average of 10,000 germs per square inch. And then you likely head to your dorm room and throw your backpack on your bed. Bad idea. Instead of contaminating surfaces where you sleep, put in a hook right at your door, so you can hang your backpack up off the ground before it has a chance to touch anything else. It will also be handy for you to pick it back up before you head out the door. In addition to hanging your bag up, also remember to wash it about once every week, throwing it in the wash if possible, or wiping down vinyl bags.
You need soap to get a truly cleansing hand wash, but the funny thing is, you’ll pick up germs doing so. About 25% of public restroom soap dispensers have fecal bacteria present, not surprising, with them being in the restroom and all. And they’re the last place dirty hands touch before they get clean, so of course, the bottoms have millions of bacteria. It’s gross to think of, but it offers good motivation for getting your hands actually clean. Don’t just do a quick pass with soap and water, really get in there and scrub for 15 to 20 seconds with plenty of hot water to make sure you’re cleaning existing germs, and the ones you pick up off the soap dispenser.
ATMs on campus join the list of places that are as full of germs as the toilets. Anti-bacterial company BioCote conducted a study that revealed that ATMs have almost the same level of infection as public toilets, and the bacteria discovered are the same ones that will lead to human illness. There’s not much you can do the avoid the ATM, short of online banking whenever possible. And you might end up with angry people behind you, tapping their feet and waiting for you to get on with things if you insist upon wiping the ATM down with an anti-bacterial wipe before getting started. The best way to combat the germs found at ATMs is to regularly practice good hygiene, remembering to wash your hands often and avoid touching your face. Those who are especially cautious might want to use an anti-bacterial gel after visiting the ATM, however, and be careful about where you place your ATM card, as it’s also covered in germs.
Students visit the dorm laundry room to get clothes and sheets clean, but the fact is that this place is crawling with germs, especially the washer. Care2 puts it bluntly, telling everyone that "there’s poop in your laundry," and it’s true. There’s about 0.1 gram of fecal matter in every piece of underwear. It doesn’t sound so bad until you consider that, well, it’s poop, no matter how small, and that it adds up to about 100 million E. coli bacteria in every load. In a community washer situation, that’s just downright disturbing. How can you ease your mind about the poop in your laundry? Add some tea tree oil to your detergent, and run hot water for cleaning, which is more effective at removing dirt and bacteria. It’s also wise to avoid letting laundry sit wet before drying, as this gives germs left over in the wash the opportunity to multiply. Dry your laundry on high heat for a full cycle, and don’t mix surfaces (folding tables, hampers) that hold dirty laundry with clean laundry. And of course, be sure to wash your hands after putting wet laundry in the dryer.
He (or she) who controls the remote controls the power, along with a ton of germs. In a University of Virginia study, 50% of TV remotes were found to test positive for rhinovirus, along with plenty of other germs. Whether they’re in your dorm, or worse, in common areas, you’re picking up more than just the remote when you sit down to watch TV. And although you can wipe down a remote’s surface, you can’t get it truly clean because there’s no way to get into all the cracks and buttons. The only real way to protect yourself is by investing in a cover for your remote, and wiping it down regularly. Public remotes can be put in a plastic bag, but we’re thinking you might get some weird looks for that. The good news is that companies like DirecTV are coming out with germ-resistant remotes, so soon, you may not need to worry about the germs on remotes at all.
When you think of all the people that touch door handles, it’s not surprising to find out that they are great vehicles for transmitting viruses, especially cold and flu. Germs can live on doorknobs for more than two hours, just waiting for you to come and pick them up. And it’s not as if you can completely avoid touching doorknobs. You can push open doors with your backside, strategically wait to throw away paper towels after you open the door, or even wait for someone else to open doors, but eventually, you’ll be touching a doorknob and all the germs that live on it. The best defense against germy doorknobs is, as usual, good hygiene, with regular hand washing and the use of hand sanitizer when necessary.
Communal shower floors
We’ve all heard of students picking up athlete’s foot from dorm showers, and probably heeded the warnings to remember to wear flip flops. It turns out that there’s actually truth to the rumor that shower floors are dirty, and it makes sense. Although showers are a place where you go to get clean, they’re also wet and warm, a great combination for germs looking to grow. In a study from the Simmons College Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community, 43% of shower floors were found to contain bacteria indicating fecal contamination, and 20% had streptococci. If you have the option to get a dorm room with a separate shower, that’s obviously a great way to avoid the communal shower germs. Of course, you’ll have to clean it regularly yourself, but you can better control the germs that are in your own shower. If that’s not an option, you can bring antibacterial spray with you to the shower, and there are always shower flip flops.
The gateway to your food may be one of the germiest places in your dorm room, and that’s a bit disturbing. Dorm room fridge handles often have twice as much bacteria as dorm toilet handles. Thirty-seven percent have bacteria indicating fecal contamination, and 13% have staph. Most students (56%) never clean their dorm room fridge, so it’s not surprising to find these germs present, although it is worrisome. The best way to combat refrigerator germs is to wipe it all down, outside and inside, being careful to remember even the door seals, which are often forgotten.
Sandals are a staple among college footwear, with some students even braving the cold of winter with their toes out. They’re comfortable and easy to slip on when you’re heading out the door, but unfortunately, germs are also big fans of sandals. Walking around in flip flops, your feet are exposed to plenty of disturbing substances: human waste, vomit, dog feces, spit, and more, which often carry bacteria and have been growing in the sun. City streets are often incubators for staph, strep, norovirus, E.coli, and MRSA, all of which can make you very sick, or even kill you. But the good news is that your skin is adept at protecting you from these bacteria, and you’re not likely to be putting your foot in your mouth any time soon. Of course, you do have to be careful about where you step with formerly sandal-clad feet, as you’ll track in all of these substances, and picking your sandals up with your hands will transfer them as well. Wash your feet when you get home, or simply put a pair of slippers by your front door, so you can avoid walking germs all over the floor.
Water fountains are wet, and touched by hands and sometimes even mouths. Of course they are going to be full of germs. NSF International reports that water fountain spigots typically have between 62,000 to 2.7 million bacteria per square inch just waiting to hitch a ride and infect you. You can avoid drinking from the water fountain by remembering to bring along your own refillable water bottle, but when it’s time to refill, or if you’ve forgotten it in your dorm room, you just might end up at the fountain. You have a good chance of picking something up, but don’t despair: with good hand washing and healthy living, you can deflect and defend yourself against the ills of the water fountain, so drink up!
Microwaves are notorious for not being cleaned. Remember The Officeepisode when Pam posted her passive-aggressive note about the disgusting state of the office microwave? We imagine that’s pretty standard for college community microwaves as well. And if the inside is sorely neglected, surely the buttons are as well. Microwave touch screens and the door button are touched often, even by hands contaminated by yet-uncooked food, leaving behind goodies like E.coli and salmonella. Bet you weren’t planning on having those with your bag of popcorn. This one’s easy, just quickly wipe down buttons before you get started, and use a paper towel or disposable plate to separate your food from the bottom of the microwave.
The last thing you touch before you start eating is the dirtiest place in the cafeteria: the checkout keypad at the end of the lunch line. Microbiologist Robert Donofrio tested one elementary school’s checkout keypad, and revealed it to be the worst culprit of germs in the cafeteria, with a reading of 13,144 organisms. Chances are, you’re not running to the bathroom to wash your hands in between paying for your lunch and actually eating it, but given the amount of germs present, that’s not a bad idea. For most people, however, anti-bacterial gel or wipes will do the trick just as well. And if you have the option to prepay on a meal plan and avoid the keypad altogether, that’s even better.
Most people assume that the toilet seat is the dirtiest thing in the bathroom, but the fact is that you’re not really going to get germs from your backside. Rather, the real danger is on the floor. In one test, researchers found 2 million bacteria per square inch, which is 200 times higher than a sanitary surface. Obviously, you’ll want to avoid walking barefoot around public bathrooms, which most people do, but it’s also wise to pay attention to what you’re putting on the floor, or allowing to drop. Be careful with your sunglasses, cell phone, and keys, all things that students often carelessly drop of the bathroom floor (or, oops, in the toilet water). And of course, never put your backpack, purse, or schoolbooks on the floor, as you’ll only pick up germs to take with you to class or back to your dorm room.
Contacts and sources:Tim Handorf