The worst places for germs

Stay healthy by protecting yourself from illness-causing germs and viruses

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wash hands germs water

Avoid getting sick

Germs and illness-causing viruses are silently lurking everywhere – in restaurants, at the supermarket, in the doctor’s office. Sparking colds, influenza and upset stomach, these microbes can live on hard surfaces such as plastic and stainless steel for 48 hours or more according to the Mayo Clinic. If you come in contact with these places, and touch your eyes, nose or mouth before you can wash your hands, you could introduce these nasty bugs to your body. Dr. Susan Malloy, a Halifax-based member of the College of Family Physicians of Canada has tips on how to handle public places without getting sick.

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Menus and restaurant condiments

Have you ever dined in a restaurant and held a slimy menu, or ketchup-encrusted bottle? Menus and restaurant condiments such as salt and pepper shakers, and sugar dispensers aren’t cleaned after every customer, and easily become germ magnets after being handled by waiters, bar staff and previous patrons.

Stay healthy: Don’t let the menu touch your cutlery, or plate, and “after you order, go to the bathroom to wash your hands,” says Malloy. “With condiments, put a napkin in your hand, so there’s no direct contact.”

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shopping cart grocery store

Shopping carts

A 2007 University of Arizona study discovered that nearly two-thirds of all shopping carts tested were carrying fecal bacteria. The handle and the child seat in particular are often covered in illness-causing troublemakers.

Stay healthy: A baby with a dirty diaper sitting in a shopping cart can leave behind fecal bacteria. “In major grocery stores, they have antiseptic wipes as you come in. Wipe down the handle, and around the child seat,” says Malloy. If your store doesn’t offer free antiseptic wipes, pack your own.

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hospital infections - doctor in mask

The doctor’s office

The doctor’s office is also a hot spot for illness. “It’s a Petri dish,” says Malloy. It’s not surprising – most people there are sick!

Stay healthy: Magazines and children’s toys in waiting rooms can be covered with germs from ill visitors, so bring your own. If space permits, sit several chairs away from fellow patients – droplets released from an infectious sneeze or cough can travel up to three-feet! Stuck in a crowded waiting room? “We provide patients with a face mask,” says Malloy.

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Fruit slices in drinks

A 2007 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health found that 70 percent of restaurant fruit slices sampled were harbouring sickness-causing germs such as E. coli, as well as fecal bacteria.

Stay healthy: Tell your server to skip the slice. Malloy says that if the fruit wasn’t washed thoroughly, it could have E. coli contamination. Many establishments also leave lime and lemon wedges exposed by the bar where droplets from infected sneezes or coughs could land. And then there’s the question of how often the bartenders wash their hands. If they don’t use tongs to garnish your glass, that beverage might feature more than just citrus flavour.

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pear and goat cheese

Free food samples

Your bakery, local bar and grocery store may be in the habit of offering free nibbles. If you dig into these complimentary snacks, you might be sampling germs, too.

Stay healthy: “You’re putting yourself at high risk,” says Malloy. “People are dipping their hands in the dish, and then directly into their mouths.” This dish-to-mouth contact is how viruses can spread, so avoid food where multiple people can help themselves. The one exception: supermarkets that follow proper health protocol. If the server is wearing gloves and places the sample in an individual cup, snack away.

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driving in car with window open

Gas pump handles

When you fill ‘er up, you might be getting more than a full gas tank. In 2011, Kimberly-Clark Professional, named gas pump handles as the most germ-covered place in the public domain. The reason? They’re rarely cleaned.

Stay healthy: Pack your own anti-bacterial hand wipes for a refreshing clean post-fill up.

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buffet salad bar


Many restaurants have awnings over their buffets to shield food from coughs and sneezes; however, these hoods don’t offer complete protection. “People serve themselves, so assume that the spoon handles are dirty,” says Malloy. And if a customer returns for a second helping with their used plate, they could contaminate the smorgasbord if the buffet’s serving utensils touch their plate before being returned to the food.

Stay healthy: If you’re wary of influenza or colds, it might be a good idea to pass on the buffet.

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washroom sign

Public restrooms

Public restrooms are a germy HQ for obvious reasons!

Stay healthy: Visit public restrooms with caution. After leaving the stall, use paper towel to dispense soap – 25 percent of restroom soap dispensers have fecal bacteria on them – and to turn on the faucet. “When you’re leaving, touch the door handle with another paper towel,” says Malloy.

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Take your health into your own hands:

Malloy says that you can avoid many illnesses if you do two things: get an annual flu shot, and wash your hands properly and frequently. “Use warm water, any kind of soap – it doesn’t have to be anti-bacterial – and rub your hands together from the wrists down to fingertips and in between the fingers as well,” she says. To ensure that you’ve cleaned sufficiently, Malloy recommends singing Happy Birthday in your head once or twice. Can’t find a bathroom? Alcohol-based sanitizers are the next best option to hand washing.

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