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Are you a germaphobe?

Germs are everywhere – in fact, there could be thousands on your keyboard and mobile phone. But are they harmful? 

According to Christine Zurawski, M.D., an infectious disease expert at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, “Germs - both viruses and bacteria - are part of our everyday lives. We need germs, but there is a difference between good germs and bad germs.” 

Let’s start with germ 101. 

Viruses are tiny, infectious particles that cause common diseases like the flu, cold and chickenpox. They also are responsible for more serious diseases, like hepatitis. A virus injects its genetic material into a host cell and can then tell the cell to multiply. Antiviral medications can limit the virus’ development, though they cannot actually kill the virus. 

Bacteria are single-celled microorganisms that cause illnesses like strep throat, pneumonia, bronchitis and sinusitis. Unlike viruses, bacteria don’t need a host cell to multiply – they can multiply by dividing themselves. Some bacteria are good for your health, such as the bacteria in your intestines, which help your body digest food. Antibiotics are the best way to treat bacterial infections, but washing your hands is the best prevention. 

While it's true that your mobile phone, for example, is covered in germs, the germs aren't always the harmful variety.  

“The bacteria on your phone are your own,” says Dr. Zurawski. “You shouldn’t become overly concerned about avoiding all bacteria. The challenge comes when you are out in the environment, not necessarily in your own home."

Common areas are more likely to contain disease-causing bacteria and viruses. 

“If people are coughing and sneezing, they can leave viruses and bacteria on the things you touch,” she explains. 

So should we constantly wash our hands or avoid public places? Not necessarily, says Dr. Zurawski. 

“The key is everything in moderation. You don’t need to walk around sanitizing your hands constantly, but washing your hands is the best way to prevent disease.”

Proper handwashing technique

While hand washing may sound pretty basic, there is actually a correct technique. Dr. Zurawski recommends washing hands with soap and water for up to a minute, then thoroughly rinsing. 

“This will get rid of everything, whether you are using regular or antibacterial soap,” she adds. “It’s all the same.”

Studies have shown that antibacterial soap doesn’t provide additional protection against disease and some suggest it could do more harm than good. While antibacterial soap is used in healthcare settings, regular hand soap and warm water is recommended for everyday use to remove both bacteria and viruses. 

Not all germs will make you sick  

“Bacteria have to exist in our world,” Dr. Zurawski explains. “Bacteria are necessary for our bodies to function properly.” 

People take probiotics and eat yogurt for colon health, she notes. 

In fact, “removing all germs from our environment can actually be detrimental to our health.” 

Her key message? 

“Number one, don’t go crazy. Understand that viruses and bacteria are everywhere, and they are not universally going to harm you,” says Dr. Zurawski. “The second, third and fourth thing: wash your hands.” 

Whether or not you consider yourself a so-called “germaphobe,” viruses and bacteria are part of our daily lives. By washing your hands before eating and after using the restroom, you can help safeguard yourself and others against illness.

For more healthy lifestyle tips, click here

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