When we think of things that are making us sick, the first images that generally pop in our heads are the doorhandles at cafes, subway railings, and those frighteningly dirty restaurant forks. They're full of germs and diseases and sadness — they're the very reasons portable hand sanitizers were invented! But unfortunately, it turns out that there are plenty more little things to worry about when it comes to our overall health, many of which live comfortably in our home. We generally don't think twice about how surrounding household items affect our wellbeing, but it's often the things right under our noses that could be causing that common cold, or the persistent cough at night that's keeping our SO wide awake.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 48 million Americans a year get sick from food-borne illnesses — strains of E.coli, salmonella, and listeria — sometimes, in their own homes. While contracting one of these illnesses may not be life-threatening for the average Jane, it can be pretty serious for those of us who are wrestling with auto-immune diseases or are pregnant.
Even if we don't fall into those categories, though, why subject ourselves to potential sickness if we can help it? Before your anxiety spikes through the roof, know that these are easily fixable issues, no matter how domestically challenged you are.
Here are nine things in your home that might be making you sick — and how to keep things clean and safe.
1. Your Refrigerator Trays & Drawers
Other than cleaning out the leftover noodles and pizza on the regular (which you're doing, right?!), your fridge has some sneaky areas that might be giving you nasty germs. For one, anything liquid that spills over onto the shelves and trays collects mold and could get into your other fresh food.
There is also an electric coil in your freezer that has a bad habit of melting every few hours, and that liquid drips into a little pan. If you haven't given that pan some TLC in a while, there is dust in there; so when the liquid evaporates from the pan, it carries the dusty grime across your home, perhaps gifting you with a phlegmy cough.
Of course, don't forget the fruit and vegetable drawers way down at the bottom you so conveniently manage to ignore. They could be cesspools of microorganisms that cause infection. Don't be shy — get down into the little corners and clean them out using warm water and baking soda. Finally, meat scientist from the University of Kentucky Gregg Rentfrow recommends that, right after you get home from the grocery store, you wash your fruits and vegetables thoroughly before storing them in the fridge.
2. Your Bed Sheets
This is the last thing you want to hear, but your pretty white sheets are prime time real estate for dust mites. These little buggers make it very easy for you to catch a common cold, worsen your allergies, and cause hay fever. They accumulate when the environment of your bedroom is enclosed, with tightly shut windows and a nicely made bed. The consequential dampness encourages bacteria to fester, the kind that leads to the flu or stomach poisoning.
Dr. Lisa Ackerley, a home hygiene expert, told Woman's Day that we should air out our room on the daily and wash our linens at 60 degrees or lower with antibacterial laundry detergent. Also, sleeping naked all the time may not be the best idea — it spreads germs — and regular vacuuming is a must.
3. Your Blender
I too thought blenders were the ultimate representation of healthiness. But apparently, if you're not cleaning out that machine after every use, you're inviting some nasties into your system.
The little gadgets that live at the bottom of the blender collect spillage and leftover liquids over time. Next thing you know, you've got a puddle of microorganisms such as salmonella and E.coli sitting underneath your healthy concoction. Lisa Yaks, a project manager for a public health and safety organization called NSF International, told USA Today that we should take apart the blender after each use with clean hands, and at least give it a rinse before we stash it away.
4. Hidden Mold
The way houses are structured today makes it easier than ever for mold to sneak in and silently worsen our health. Mold builds up quickly on wood, drywall, and wallpaper, and because our homes are sealed for energy efficiency, the locked in moisture only exacerbates this growth.
This buildup can cause allergic reactions in one in every three people, and significantly aggravate asthma in those who already suffer from it. Not all kinds of mold are this dangerous, though; Dr. David Zhang, a research biologist at Mt. Sinai Medical Center says only 50 out of 100,000 mold species have been declared toxic.
You should consider having a professional check out your home's mold situation if there are any visual indications of discoloration, peeling, or water intrusion. Furthermore, faint musty smells anywhere are good reasons to call in an expert. If you're also battling constant physical symptoms such as sneezing, coughing, dry eyes, or rashes, don't hesitate to schedule a mold specialist to come by.
5. Your Cleaning Products
We're learning more and more about the toxic side effects of the everyday cleaning products we've got tucked away under the kitchen sink. While most of them have a fresh, lemony scent, they're actually packed with chemicals that could irritate our skin, damage our kidneys and livers, and depress the central nervous system.
To make things even scarier, there's only so much we know. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only seven percent of the top selling products make the toxicity information available to the public. If you have these leading cleaners in your home, make sure you're using rubber gloves and opening the windows when you use them, and dilute the product with water to lessen the nasty effects.
There is also an even easier solution: use products that aren't made with the common awful ingredients such as ethanolamines, 2-Butoxyethanol, and dye. Purchase eco-friendly cleaners instead, or use natural things already in your cabinet — vinegar and baking soda.
6. Your Central Heating System
If the temperature in each room of your house isn't regulated the same way, your body has to constantly adjust from hot to cold, which could disrupt the blood supply going to your heart. The central heating system could also be messing with the natural oil gland in your eyes and subsequently drying them out. Hello, eye infection. Another consequence is frequent coughing at night due to the surface membranes of your lungs not getting enough moisture.
You may have to install a humidifier to counteract all this irritation. Also, make sure every room of the house is set to the same temperature. That way, your body doesn't have to go through a huge adjustment every time you need to pee.
7. Your Vacuum Cleaner
If you're not regularly tending to your vacuum's filter, you're putting yourself at risk for disgusting microbes and bacteria to make their way into your system, triggering allergies and affecting your ability to breathe normally.
Caroline Duchaine, a professor at Laval University in Quebec, told Prevention that the dust coming up from your vacuum contains antibiotic-resistant genes that could be damaging your lungs in the long run. Be sure to clean out the filter often, open the windows when you vacuum, and consider wearing a mask while cleaning.
You may want to also consider purchasing a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter, which knicks 99 percent of the particulates in the air. This will ensure that a lot less microbe-filled dust particles will float around in the air and land in your nasal passageway.
8. Your Bath Mat
That fluffy little pad you step on every time you come out of the shower squeaky clean is really no more than a playground for mold, bacteria, and dust mites. All of these can lead to colds and debilitating allergies. If you're a baby powder (or corn starch, if you're trying to avoid talcum) user, particularly one who doles out the product on top of the bath mat, it's even easier for the nasties to gather and eventually make you sick.
Wash that mat more often, maybe a couple times a month. You should also try to towel off in the tub, to ensure you don't step on that fluffy little pad sopping wet.
9. Your Shower Head
A study across nine American cities showed that 30 percent of people's shower heads carried scarily high amounts of a group of bacteria called Mycobacterium avium. Researchers found that, compared to the rest of the household, the water dripping out of the shower heads had 100-times more of this particular bacteria that the rest of the house's H2O.
Mycobacterium avium is the kind of bacteria that means business. Once inhaled or swallowed, it can cause lung infections and pulmonary disease. Symptoms include breathlessness, constant coughing, and fatigue. These complications are most worrisome for people with weak immune systems, but that doesn't mean it can't affect anyone.
The solution? Clean that shower head! Seriously, clean it. The longer you let it sit there, the more it will build up moisture, thus becoming the perfect feeding ground for mean bacteria. You should change it out regularly too; according to the experts, every six to eight months.