A few months back, we came across a story carried by the NBC news website suggesting that exposure to dirt and germs might actually confer some possible positive health effects. That article referenced research published this fall in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology that found that Amish children who were raised on farms were less likely to develop allergies and asthma than their peers.
Before tossing aside our sponges with glee, we reached out to Ann Marie Pettis, director of Infection Prevention at Strong Memorial and Highland Hospitals, for more insight.
Scripts: We all know that keeping a clean house is important to our health. But how much is too much? Can you be too clean?
Pettis: I’ve certainly heard this message before, and it seems to make sense. The most important thing to remember on this topic is that striking a balance is key. Balance your cleaning and your aesthetics—no one wants to live in a dirty home—with your health. Exposure to the germs that we consider “good guys” makes sense, however there are germs you’ll never want exposure to, such as hepatitis, salmonella, HIV, etc. Don’t go overboard, like Lady MacBeth trying to “wash her evil deeds away,” but rather make good hygiene a priority. A baby is born with their mother’s immunity, which gradually wanes, as their own immunity develops. Recent studies seem to show that if babies are not exposed to those “good” germs (again, the kinds that don’t typically cause serious disease) he or she may be at a disadvantage. One is reminded of the old adage “You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die,” and perhaps there might be a grain of truth to that.
Pettis: Take a guess as to which room in our homes is the dirtiest. Many are surprised to find out that the kitchen, not the bathroom, takes the cake (or would it be the mud pie?) here. The number one offenders are dishrags and sponges. We encourage either the use of disposable dishrags, or to microwave sponges daily for two minutes, or soak them in bleach to kill the germs.
The sink is another culprit. Primarily, we’re concerned with germs that cause foodborne illnesses. The towels you use to dry your dishes can also get contaminated, so be sure to switch those out periodically. Be sure to use plastic cutting boards, not the pretty wooden ones (sorry!), and dishwash or bleach them when KP duty rolls around.
From there, it’s time to think about your faucets, toothbrush holders, and pet bowls and toys. A special note: if someone in your house is immunocompromised (sick), you need to keep both the bad and the good germs at bay. Make sure to wash their clothes in hot water, or, if you do use cold water, that you include some bleach if possible or then pitch them into the dryer on the hot cycle.
Scripts: On a related note, it seems pocket-sized hand sanitizers are all the rage. We know it’s important that health care workers are vigilant about clean hands, but is it possible for the average person to be overzealous in using these sorts of products? How often is reasonable, for application?
Pettis: Hands down, hand hygiene matters. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is wonderful, but remember that if you overdo it, you could possibly break down your skin, which is your body’s best barrier against germs. When this starts to happen, you’ll see chapping and cracking. That’s a sure sign to slow down with it, or the germs will have an easier time getting past our defenses to make us sick.
Ann Marie Pettis directs Infection Prevention at both the University of Rochester Medical Center (Strong Memorial Hospital and Golisano Children’s Hospital) and affiliate Highland Hospital. An infection preventionist with more than 30 years experience, she’s published articles in peer-reviewed journals and trade publications, and lectures locally, nationally, and internationally. Leadership roles include serving as past president of Western New York Infection Control Organization and the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) Finger Lakes Chapter. She recently completed her term as chair of the APIC Communications Committee.
A couple years back, she spoke to Scripts with some smart advice on whether or not handshakes should be taboo during cold and flu season. You can see that “Let’s (Not) Shake on It” video post here.