The truth about germs and how to avoid them

illustration of germs

Say the word “germs” and most people think they’re something to be avoided at all costs. The very term conjures up unsanitary, disease-bearing bacteria or viruses, guaranteed to lay a person low for days – or even weeks.

“That’s not necessarily the case,” says Dr. Jennifer Park, a family physician with NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital in Cortlandt Manor. “Of course we all want to keep our surroundings as clean as possible to reduce risk of exposure to potentially harmful germs, but some bacterial germs are actually good for us. They’re even a part of us. They live on our skin, in our mouths, and in our gut. If that balance is disturbed (such as by taking antibiotics), it can open the door to a host of maladies. There are also scientists who believe that children who lack early exposure to bacteria and germs may increase their risk of developing allergies and asthma.”

Some popular myths dispelled

Myth No. 1: Hand dryers are more sanitary than paper towels.

False. A recent review found that paper towels are far more hygienic than dryers, which simply blow bacteria all over your hands — in addition to the entire bathroom.

Myth No. 2: You can catch a disease from a toilet seat.

False. This is a popular misconception, but it’s just not true, since viruses and bacteria die almost instantly when they leave the body.

Myth No. 3: Using an antibacterial soap protects you from germs.

False. There is no evidence that antibacterial soaps are any better than soap and water when it comes to cleaning surfaces or your hands, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. Since antibacterial soaps contain chemicals that have been linked to environmental-health problems it is best practice to wash your hands with soap and water.

Myth No. 4: The 5-second rule can keep you safe.

Maybe. This is actually a “half-truth,” say experts. While off-the-floor eating is far from ideal, research has proven that the less time food stays on the floor, the less bacteria it tends to pick up. But the rule of thumb is that all food dropped on the floor can pick up some bacteria, so it’s best to discard it.

How to stop the spread of germs

Dr. Park says: “Most germs are spread through the air — through sneezes, coughs, or even breaths. Germs can also spread in sweat, saliva, and blood. Some pass from person to person by touching something that is contaminated, like shaking hands with someone who has a cold and then touching your own nose.”

Illnesses like colds and flu are common, particularly during the winter months; but there are steps you can take to help prevent unleashing the germs — and the misery — onto family and friends:

  1. Sneeze right: By covering your mouth and nose with a tissue and putting the tissue in the trash right away. If no tissues are available, use the crook of your elbow, not your hand.
  2. Wash hands often: This will help to eliminate any germs that may be on them.
  3. Limit exposure to at-risk groups: This is especially true for the elderly, infants or anyone with a weakened immune system.
  4. Sanitize shared items: Clean doorknobs and other household items by using soap and water, bleach or antiseptics.
  5. Take care of yourself: Get enough sleep, make sure you get a flu shot every year, make sure all of your vaccines are up to date, eat right, drink plenty of fluids, and exercise regularly.
  6. Stay home when you are sick: If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. This will help prevent spreading your illness to others.
  7. Avoid close contact. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick, and avoid being around others who are sick.
  8. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread when a person touches a surface or object that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.

Adds Dr. Park: “A few simple lifestyle precautions do a lot to protect you from the health hazards that are especially prevalent during the winter months.”

To find a primary care specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital, visit

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