Q: Chuck, my husband doesn't believe how easily he can get sick using public restrooms or even going to the gym. I don't want to be a germophobe, but I also don't want us to bury our heads in the sand of sickness. Where's the balance? — Susie C. in Minnesota
A: The balance is found in prevention and precaution, but not in paranoia.
Obviously, I love gyms and encourage their use, and there are some health tips one can remember when training to help back away from bacteria. We're all likely to use public restrooms — if not at work, then when at play — and how we maneuver within those lavatory jungles could determine whether or not we and members in our family are ill the next week.
I recently read a great article in Men's Health by Paige Fowler, "6 Places You're Most Likely to Get Sick." Let me summarize her excellent points and add a few more of my own about how to avoid what she calls "the germiest hotspots," which just happen to be within the places we all frequent most.
—Germ hot spot No. 1: your work environment.
There are two critical places at your place of employment when it comes to germs. The first is your desk, where — believe it or not — there are hundreds of times more bacteria than there are on your company's toilet seats, according to University of Arizona research.
The second area to watch out for is the break room's refrigerator door. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reported that 44 percent of office refrigerators are cleaned only on a monthly basis, and 22 percent are cleaned just once a year.
Lola Stamm, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, explained, "Anything that leaks or spills can become a breeding ground for bacteria." She said half of the most commonly touched surfaces in an office can become bacteria-ridden by lunchtime each day.
So though it's popular to eat in front of the computer screen, remember that even crumbs become feasts for germs, so the desk becomes your private zoo for bacteria. The solution here is to clean your keyboard, phone and desk with disinfectant wipes daily. Don't eat at your computer, or at least stand away from your desk when you do so crumbs can fall to the ground. You might even keep a can of compressed air around and blow off your desk and keyboard once a week. And when it comes to grabbing the handle on that public refrigerator door, just remember two words: paper towel.
—Germ hot spot No. 2: public restrooms.
Toilet seat tissue covers are a given. But what's not so obvious is the microorganism production going on at the restroom sinks and even the hand dryers.
Men's Health explained: "A University of Colorado study identified 19 groups of bacteria, including staphylococcus aureus — the bug linked with antibiotic-resistant infections — in public restrooms. The sink may be the most germ-ridden surface of them all, according to a study by the non-profit NSF International, since the dampness allows microorganisms to survive."
And just as moisture enhances bacterial breeding, so does warmth. The Journal of Applied Microbiology reported that rubbing your hands together under a dryer can boost the number of bacteria on your skin by up to 45 percent.
The solution, of course, is using paper towels if they are available. And if not, take a moment just to let your hands dry naturally, hastening the process by flicking your hands and wrists in quick motions away and down from your body, allowing excess water droplets to fall from your hands to the floor (being careful, of course, not to shake the water onto your clothing or the person beside you).
As you leave the restroom after you wash your hands, never grab the door handle with your bare hands. If you can't nudge or push the door open with your shoulder or elbow, then grab a drying towel to keep your clean hands from touching the door or gripping the handle or doorknob.
—Germ hot spot No. 3: the bank.
Most people know that money can be very dirty, and I'm not talking laundering. Did you know that dollar bills contain an average of 26,000 bacteria? That was the conclusion of scientists at Oxford University.
And did you know that a key on an ATM keyboard harbors an average of 1,200 germs, including E. coli and cold and flu viruses, according to University of Arizona researchers.
(Those numbers make one wonder how much is really being deposited and withdrawn from banks!)
There's only one way out of that financial fiasco: hand sanitizer. Keep a bottle in your car, and rub in a squirt as soon as you leave the bank (and maybe even when you arrive).
It should be noted that most of these germ hot spots become microbe launching pads because, among other reasons, 95 percent of people either don't wash their hands or wash their hands improperly, at least according to Michigan State University researchers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as reported by CBS, "the 'right way to wash your hands' is to wet your hands with clean running water (warm or cold) and apply soap. Rub them together to make a lather while scrubbing them well, making sure you get the backs of the hands, between the fingers and under the nails. Keep this up for 20 seconds — the CDC recommends singing the 'Happy Birthday' song twice — and after, rinse under running water."
CBS added: "Hand-washing saves lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Proper technique can cut cold and flu risk (and) prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses and other infections."
In our world of fast global transport and travel, who knew that by learning proper techniques to wash our hands, we could save the world — or at least make it a whole lot healthier?
Benjamin Franklin was most certainly right: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
Next week, I will share the last three likely places you and your loved ones could get sick and what you can do to prevent it.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.