The holiday season is filled with any number of things to look forward to, from festive lighting, to delicious meals, to vacation with family and friends. But there's one aspect of the holiday season that can totally derail all of these fun plans: the flu. For this reason, it's super important to stay on top of which places in your offices carry flu-related germs, so that you can take the necessary precautions and stay healthy all winter long.
Before your panic sets in, it's crucial to keep in mind all of the ways in which you won't get the flu. For example, you can't just contract the flu virus through skin-to-skin contact with another person. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu virus is mainly transmitted through bodily fluid droplets, via coughing, sneezing, or talking. Additionally, the flu virus only lives outside of the body for a number of hours, the CDC notes. So just because your sick co-worker high fives you, doesn't guarantee you're going to be under the weather (though you should definitely go wash your hands immediately).
It's also important to get a flu vaccination, regardless of how good you are at avoiding sniffly people. The approximate effectiveness of the flu vaccine in 2018 was 47%, according to the CDC. Even though the effectiveness is under 50%, it's still worth getting a shot, since the vaccine can drastically reduce the severity of your symptoms if you do end up getting the flu.
Still, even if you get the shot, it's always helpful to know where you should avoid during the holiday season. Here are some places in your office that are particularly germ-infested, and how you should deal with them throughout flu season:
The Break Room
Your office break room, or shared communal room, is often a hotbed for germs, and for good reason: consider how much traffic there is in shared office areas over the course of any given day. A brief study conducted by The Pittsburg Post-Gazette and Microbac Laboratories proved how germ-y break rooms can be: among the 10 samples taken around the newsroom (including places like bathrooms), the two most germ-infested areas in the office were women's toilet seats and the break room faucet.
Per the newspaper, both areas had bacteria populations that were 50-150 times dirtier than the third dirtiest place (a computer keyboard). For this reason, it's super important to wash your hands whenever you leave either area, and to be conscious of not touching the faucet or toilet seat if you don't have to.
According to Dr. MeiLan Han, M.D., a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care at the University of Michigan, you should think about washing your hands as frequently as possible, especially before eating or touching your face, and after you come into contact with other people or frequently used objects.
"Office objects frequently touched by others include things like the copier or office coffee machine," she says. So yeah, you should probably wash your hands whenever you leave your office break room.
Staircase railings can often contain high levels of germs and other bacteria, according to a test conducted by geneticist Chris Mason for CBS News. Staircase railings were the third most contaminated workplace area in his study, he revealed, coming in behind computer keyboards and break rooms.
But there's good news, here: if your stair railing is made of steel, then, according to Mason, the viruses won't live as long as they might in other areas.
Your Computer Keyboard
In multiple studies, computer keyboards have been found to contain the highest amount of germs, viruses, and other types of bacteria. In one such study, conducted by Chris Mason, a geneticist at Cornell, for CBS News, keyboards were found to be the most contaminated surface out of four "high-touch" areas (the other three areas were the break room, the stair railing, and the conference room).
Mason also noted that wiping down a keyboard daily with a disinfectant wipe can decrease the concentration of bacteria and viruses on your keyboard by 91%. You can also keep hand sanitizer at your desk, so that you're not constantly re-infecting your own workspace.
"Keep hand sanitizer near your desk and to use it to clean your hands (and in between the fingers) every few hours if water, soap and a sink are not readily available," Dr. Robert Danoff, D.O., M.S., FACOFP., the Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University, says to Bustle. "This is especially important because the flu virus can live on hard surfaces for up to 24 hours."
Shared Food Accessories, Like Coffee Pots
According to a study by NSF International, an American product testing, inspection, and certification organization, coffee pots and communal coffee makers often contain more germs than bathroom areas like door knobs and light switches.
But it doesn't mean you have to give up your daily cup of coffee at the office. Instead, you should consider washing the coffee pot or accessories yourself, or checking in with an office manager to make sure it's being disinfected regularly. You could also try to avoid communal cookware as much as possible, by establishing habits like bringing your own coffee thermos to work.
Any Cell Phone
According to a 2017 study by scientists at the University of Arizona, the average cell phone surface carries 10 times as much bacteria as what's found on toilet seats. It makes sense, if you think about it: your office bathrooms are likely cleaned regularly with some sort of disinfectant, but you might not have wiped your phone down recently, if ever. Luckily, the solution is simple: you can clean your phone with a disinfectant wipe every so often.
In general, it's kind of impossible to completely avoid harmful bacteria. "Being exposed to viruses is unfortunately part of the human existence," Dr. Han says. "Short of living in a bubble, at some level they will be impossible to avoid. However... common sense measures should help to reduce risk of infection."
Dr. Danoff suggests you avoid the hand shake for the flu season entirely, or swap it out for a fist bump. "If you must make contact, a fist bump has less surface area of the hand and spreads less than 50% of the germs that a handshake would do," he explains. "It is also polite to let the person know you would normally shake hands but want to also protect them by holding off on shaking hands during this season."
When in doubt, you can always wash your hands again and again. And you can learn more about the 2019 flu shot if you haven't gotten one yet.
Dr. MeiLan Han, M.D., Professor of Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care at the University of Michigan
Dr. Robert Danoff, D.O., M.S., FACOFP., the Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University.
The Pittsburgh Post Gazette & Microbac Laboratories (2018) Trying not to get sick? Here's what not to touch around the office, https://www.post-gazette.com/business/healthcare-business/2018/11/13/dirtiest-places-office-germs-work-bacteria-sick-days-microbac-laboratories-cranberry/stories/201811110036
Mason, C. (2018) Conducted Study for CBS News on Four Germ-Ridden Spaces in an Office, Advisory Board https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/2018/03/01/germs-office
NSF International (2011) NSF International Household Germ Study, NSF https://www.nsf.org/newsroom_pdf/2011_NSF_Household_Germ_Study_exec-summary.pdf
Kõljalg, S. (2017) High Level Bacterial Contamination of Secondary School Students’ Mobile Phones, Germs Journal, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5466825/