Everyone knows about the disease-causing potential of germs. Yet few people realize that microorganisms are essential for human health.

Of the 65,000 known species of germs, only about 1,400 cause disease. The rest are "good" germs, which establish our immune response, help us digest food and protect our bodies from potential pathogens. However, the germs that do promote disease can be deadly. Infectious diseases, such as pneumonia and septicemia (blood infection), are leading causes of death in the US.

Foodborne germs have made headlines due to the recent outbreaks of Escherichia coli-related illnesses. Even so, a surprising number of people are still not aware of the best ways to guard against infection through proper hygiene. Fortunately, most infections—everything from colds and the flu to life-threatening Legionnaires disease—usually can be prevented. My germ-fighting secrets...

  • Wash properly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that proper hand-washing could prevent thousands of deaths annually, but studies show that less than 10% of people wash their hands as long or as thoroughly as they should.

To effectively remove germs: Wash with warm water and soap for about 20 to 30 seconds (roughly the time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice) and rinse. Warm water dissolves soap more readily and makes it easier to remove germs. Rub the soapy water all over your hands-including the wrists, between the fingers and under the fingernails. (Use a fingernail brush, if possible.)

Best: Wash your hands several times a dayalways before eating.. after using the bathroom ...after coughing or sneezing, especially when using your hands or a tissue...after shaking hands...and after handling anything touched by many people, such as door handles and automatic teller machines (ATMs). If soap and water aren't available, use an alcohol gel containing at least 62% alcohol.

Use antibacterial products when necessary. Our hands pick up millions of potentially harmful organisms during daily activities-handling raw meats, poultry and/or fish...changing diapers...picking up pet wastes in the yard, etc. Washing with soap and water removes (rather than kills) most germs, but some are left behind—potentially causing illness.

Interesting: Some experts worry that the regular use of antibacterial soaps will promote the emergence of antibiotic-resistant organisms, but there is no evidence that links these products to resistance. More study is needed to determine the long-term effects of antibacterial soaps.

Best: After washing your hands with soap, use an antibacterial cleaner if you've handled materials such as those described above. Some antibacterial products (such as Dial Complete hand wash) contain triclosan, a germicide that kills virtually all harmful bacteria.

Also important: Never allow a pet to lick your mouth, nose, eyes or an open wound. Many people believe that the mouths of dogs and cats are relatively germ-free-however, dogs and cats can carry Pasteurella, a bacterium that can cause skin infection in humans. And turtles, frogs and snakes can harbor Salmonella, a bacterium that causes gastroenteritis and other illnesses.

  • Limit kissing to close friends and family. Mouth-to-mouth kissing clearly spreads germs, but even face kissing (kissing anywhere on the face, except the lips) can be dangerous if someone is ill. Flu viruses, for example, can be spread by an infected person during face kissing up to three days before full-blown symptoms develop and five days after they subside, depending on the germ.

Here's how: Before the kiss, the infected person may have touched his/her mouth or nose, then touched his face, contaminating it with infected saliva or mucus.

Best: Instead of kissing someone who may be sick, hug him. That way, you'll avoid face-to-face contact.

  • Air-dry toothbrushes and razors. Bacteria thrive on toothbrushes and razors that stay damp. Bacteria on a razor could cause a staphylococcal infection of the skin, while a contaminated toothbrush can spread cold or flu viruses. Rinse and let them air-dry after every use—and store them upright so that they dry completely To sanitize a toothbrush, put it in a cup of antiseptic mouthwash or 3% hydrogen peroxide (enough to cover the brush head), leave for one minute, then rinse and air-dry. Razors should be replaced after two or three uses...toothbrushes should be replaced when the bristles become worn.
  • Clean your showerhead. The Legionella bacterium causes a potentially fatal, pneumonia-like condition called Legionnaires' disease, which is contracted by inhaling infected water droplets. The organism feeds on cysteine, a substance produced by a wide variety of waterborne organisms and bacteria found in potable water. Legionella can survive in tap water for many months, and showerheads provide a hospitable environment.

Best: Remove showerheads once a year. Disassemble and clean them thoroughly with a wire brush to remove any organisms that might be present. Use a solution of one ounce of bleach mixed with one quart of water.

Also important: Replace the standing water in humidifiers with fresh water at least once a week. Before adding fresh water, clean the filters/trays according to the manufacturer's directions.

  • Close the toilet lid. Flushing an older toilet with the lid up can hur droplets of water that contain fecal matter and potentially other disease-causing organisms) up to 20 feet. The droplets can then contaminate toothbrushes, combs, faucets, etc. The risk for disease is even higher if the toilet bowl isn't cleaned regularly. Among the diseases that can be transmitted by fecal matter from an infected person are stomach flu and hepatitis A.

Best: In addition to closing the toilet lid, sanitize the bowl weekly with a commercial cleaner or a mixture of one ounce of bleach added to one quart of water.

  • Launder with hot water. Bath towels can harbor fecal bacteria, including E. coli, along with hepatitis A and other harmful viruses-and these germs aren't necessarily killed by running them through a cold- or warm water wash.

Warning: Because washing in cold or warm water doesn't kill germs, it's possible to get infected just by removing wet clothes from the washer if you then touch your nose, mouth or eyes.

Best: Use a "hot" washer setting (150° F or hotter) to kill most germs. Another option is to add bleach to the wash, which is effective even in cold or warm water. If you live in a sunny climate, consider line-drying clothes rather than using the dryer. Like the hottest cycle of a clothes dryer, the sun's ultraviolet rays will kill most germs.

Also important: Launder underwear separately in hot water to avoid contaminating other clothes. For added safety, use bleach to ensure that germs are killed when washing underwear.

What Is a Germ?

A germ is a microorganism, such as a virus, A bacterium or protozoan. Some germs help the body produce vitamins, aid in digestion and enable the immune system to work efficiently. Other germs cause disease. Germs, which can live on surfaces for minutes to days, can be transmitted through direct contact, such as sneezes and coughs, or indirect contact, including touching a contaminated doorknob.

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