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Find out exactly what germs are and how you can lessen your chances of getting sick.

Germs are something you might first hear of as a child picking up something your mother doesn’t approve of, and again in grade school science class. But what are the tiny organisms, and where are they hiding? 

What are germs?

“Germ” is a generic term for a class of microorganisms including bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa. Though some species can be good for our bodies, germs are usually associated with the strains that make us sick.

“If you make contact with a surface covered in germs then put your hand into your mouth, or come in contact with someone who’s sick, the germs will enter your bloodstream and multiply, challenging your immune system,” says Susan L. Mowatt, MD, family medicine physician at Geisinger.

Germs can be transferred from surface to surface by humans and animals, like the way bees pollinate flowers by moving among them. Once transferred to a hard surface, germs can survive on their own for long periods. In fact, cold and flu germs can live outside the human body for between 24 hours and a full week, depending on the environment.

Shared items or surfaces in high-traffic areas are a favorite of germs, as well as corners or hard-to-clean spaces where they can hide. 

Here are a few unexpected places germs may be lurking:

1. Cell phones

We’re rarely without our phones, and throughout the day you might put your phone down on a table at a restaurant, on the counter at the coffee shop or on a machine at the gym. You might even bring yours to the bathroom with you to catch up on your social feed. 

“Exposure to all of these places makes our cell phones a hot spot for germs, so you should regularly wipe your phone down with antibacterial products,” says Dr. Mowatt.

2. Light switches

You’re probably aware of the germs that gather on doorknobs, but have you ever thought about your light switches?

“Light switches are extremely high-touch areas in our homes, and they can hold onto germs and pass them on to others easily,” says Dr. Mowatt.

If you live with other people, or have visitors, you should add your light switches to your weekly cleaning routine. You can dust light switches and wipe them with a disinfectant. Just make sure you don’t get them too wet and let them air dry completely.

3. Your wallet

Whether you’re pulling out money to leave a tip or you set your wallet on the table waiting for the bill to come, your wallet is another place germs might be hitching a ride.

“Some strains of the flu virus are able to survive on paper money for up to three days,” says Dr. Mowatt.

If you’re sick, make sure you aren’t going out shopping or to eat. Instead, order and pay ahead or use contactless ways of paying whenever possible. And if you’re handling money, use hand sanitizer or wash your hands. Especially if you’re about to eat.

4. The kitchen sink

You might think bathrooms are home to the most germs, but that’s not always the case. Leftover food and other particles in your kitchen sink can feed germs and placing dishes in the sink or transferring them to the dishwasher gives germs the chance to get onto your hands.

Remember to wash the inside of your sink regularly and scrub your hands after handling dirty dishes.

And don’t forget about your kitchen sponge, another breeding ground for germs. Make sure you clean your sponge daily and replace it every couple of weeks to keep germs at bay.

Protect yourself from the flu

Unfortunately, there’s no way to avoid every place germs are hiding, but you can defend yourself with frequent hand washing, a healthy diet full of immune-boosting vitamins and nutrients and by keeping your hands away from your face.

And make sure you’re washing your hands with warm water and antibacterial soap for 20 seconds at a time. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers when you aren’t able to wash your hands. And avoid contact with others who have flu symptoms.

But your best defense? It’s getting your flu shot each year.

Next steps:

Need to get your flu shot? Learn how.
4 reasons to get your flu shot
Meet Susan L. Mowatt, MD

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