Germs are our constant companions. They’re everywhere. And they can be scary, especially when you look at them through a microscope. But these tiny microbes, which can cause everything from the common cold to a life-threatening infectionare often misunderstood. Let’s clear up some misconceptions.
MYTH #1 You can get infections by sitting on public toilet seats.
MYTHBUSTER: Don’t worry; go ahead and sit. “The seat is often one of the cleanest things on the toilet,” says Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology and environmental sciences at the University of Arizona. “I am much more concerned about what happens to your hands when you’re using a public toilet than what happens to your bottom,” adds Elizabeth Scott, codirector of the Center for Hygiene and Health at Simmons College. You’re far more likely to pick up germs from the toilet handle or the bathroom doorknob and transport them to your nose or mouth, she says. So be sure to wash your hands, and use the paper towel to grab the doorknob on the way out.
TIP: Don’t set your purse on the floor, which is often one of the germiest surfaces in the restroom.
MYTH #2 Hot water cleans best.
MYTHBUSTER: Cool water washes away the same amount of bacteria as hot water, according to a recent study of people whose hands were analyzed for germs after washing at various temperatures. The faucet water would have to be well above 100°F to kill all the bacteria on your hands, but temperatures that high can scald you, says study coauthor Donald Schaffner, a food scientist at Rutgers University. It’s more important to use soap, says Stephen Calderwood, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, because it removes more bacteria than water alone.
TIP: Count to 20 while lathering, then rinse, advises the CDC.
MYTH #3 Being in cold weather makes you ill.
MYTHBUSTER: Not directly. The drop in temperature doesn’t make us sick, but the way germs react to it might. A 2015 study found that cooler temperatures allow cold-causing rhinoviruses to replicate faster in nasal passages. Cold weather also keeps us inside, where we come into close contact with sneezing, coughing, infectious people, says Scott.
TIP: If you have a cold or the flu, be courteous and stay away from others. If you’re not sick yet, wash your hands frequently and get a flu shot–it’s not too late.
MYTH #4 An antibiotic will kill the germs that are causing your cold.
MYTHBUSTER: No such luck. Most colds are caused by viruses, and viruses don’t respond to antibiotics.
TIP: Don’t demand an antibiotic from your doctor when you have a cold. “It might put you at greater risk of developing a subsequent infection that’s resistant to antibiotics,” says Calderwood.
MYTH #5 You’re more likely to get food poisoning at a restaurant than in your own home.
MYTHBUSTER: Most restaurants are very careful to avoid problems; most home chefs are not. Up to 80% of salmonella poisoning occurs in the home, Gerba says.
TIP: To protect yourself from foodborne illness, use separate cutting boards for meats, vegetables, and breads; use a food thermometer to make sure food is cooked to the proper temperature; keep your refrigerator below 40°F to prevent bacteria from breeding; and always wash your hands before, during, and after food prep.