TAKE THE GERMAPHOBE QUIZ AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PAGE
It's the middle of flu season and germs are lurking everywhere, from your kitchen sink and the office coffee pot to your TV remote control, keyboard and carpet.
This story will make you think twice about the world around you, especially with all of the recent illness that has rocked workplaces and schools.
Altogether, local school districts have canceled more than 65 days of school due to illness. They include six sick days for Sweetwater City Schools; five for Fentress and Morgan counties' districts and four for Knox, Campbell, Claiborne, Grainger, Jefferson, Loudon, Scott and Union counties and Lenoir City. Other districts either had fewer sick days or did not respond to WBIR 10News' request for information.
Doctors say the height of the flu epidemic typically spans February and March, so we're not out of the woods yet.
In a WBIR 10News investigation, UT Medical Center armed 10News with 20 Petri dishes and sterile swabs. We tested 20 commonly touched surfaces for bacteria.
GALLERY: Where germs lurk
Dr. Mark Rasnake is an infectious diseases physician at UT Medical Center.
Everyone is covered with bacteria, he said, the vast majority of which are harmless.
"You only get in trouble when you pick up a pathogen, something that is not part of your normal bacterial or viral flora, that can make you sick," Dr. Rasnake said.
10News tested surfaces including an ATM PIN pad, gas pump handle and men's and women's bathroom sinks.
"Sink handles are often contaminated with other people's bacteria, especially in a bathroom-type environment," Rasnake said. "What we teach physicians to do is, if there is a sink handle, use a paper towel and use that to turn off the water after you finish washing your hands."
All of the surfaces tested were:
1. ATM PIN pad
2. Men's bathroom sink handle
3. Women's bathroom sink handle
4. Human fingertips
5. Kitchen sponge
6. Magazine rack door handle
7. Water bottle (nozzle and the water inside)
8. Steering wheel
9. Office coffee pot handle
10. Public door handle
11. A stranger's cell phone
12. This reporter's cell phone
13. Grocery cart handle
14. Dollar bill
15. Computer keyboard
16. Office carpet
17. Indoor office door handle
18. Gas pump
19. Elevator call button
20. TV remote control
TAKE THE GERMAPHOBE QUIZ AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PAGE
Dr. Rasnake instructed 10News to unwrap the sterile swab, dip it in a vile of sterile saline solution, swab the surface and then streak the swab onto the Petri dish.
The samples then went into an incubator at the Clinical Laboratory at UT Medical Center, where they sat at human body temperature for about two days.
The results looked gross-- but Dr. Rasnake put them in context.
"Just because it looks gross on the plate doesn't mean that it's necessarily a dangerous surface," he said. "Again, the human body is covered with bacteria. We put it on a special plate that makes it grow into a large amount of bacteria that we can see."
10News met a young woman named Makayla Karas in Market Square, as she was about to grab lunch with her family. She let us test her cell phone, which was one of the cleanest samples of the bunch.
"There's just a few spots of typical skin bacteria," Rasnake said, studying the incubated sample. "This is from someone's phone that's probably been recently cleaned."
On the opposite end of the spectrum was the office kitchen sponge, which showed the highest concentration of bacteria.
"Everyone has a little kitchen sponge laying around the home, and these are innocent bacteria. These things aren't pathogens that are growing on this plate, but you can see here just how many bacteria a kitchen sponge can hold," Rasnake said, holding up the plate covered with bacteria.
Both the ATM PIN pad and and gas pump grew harmless skin bacteria - and just a moderate amount, at that.
"Another interesting comparison here are the plates labeled 'women's bathroom' and 'men's bathroom,'" Rasnake said, holding up two dishes.
The men's bathroom sink handle sample grew noticeably more bacteria than the women's sink handle sample.
"You can make your own conclusions about that," Rasnake said, with a chuckle, adding those results don't surprise him.
What may come as a surprise to some, however, is the high concentration of bacteria on the office coffee pot handle. Of the 20 samples, it came in second for most bacteria, behind the kitchen sponge.
"Tons of bacteria," Rasnake said, holding up the coffee pot handle sample. "This thing gets a lot of use by human hands."
The results from the TV remote control were also pretty disgusting.
The good news, Rasnake said, is that "regular hand-washing would get rid of pretty much anything we would see on these plates."
Of the 20 surfaces tested, only one showed some real cause for concern: the office computer keyboard.
"The yellowish bacteria colonies with the clear area around it, these are pathogens called staph aureus, and this is an organism that can get you sick," Rasnake said, holding up the keyboard sample.
A lot of people, he said, have staph aureus living harmlessly on their skin.
"But if they transmit it to someone else that might be vulnerable to this, then this bacteria can dive deep into the human body, cause abscesses, maybe blood stream infections or even worse," he said, adding staph aureus is what can turn the flu into severe pneumonia.
"The single best thing you is wash your hands with warm, soapy water," he said.
But how long and frequently is enough, when it comes to hand-washing?
Experts urge people to be aware of what they touch.
See the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tips on hand-washing HERE.
"Things people need to bear in mind is any kind of door handle of a community building, like shopping malls or restaurants or your office space itself," Rasnake said. "Door knobs, sink handles, just anything where someone else has touched, where they might have coughed or sneezed into their hands."
He suggests washing reusable water bottles daily.
"Especially diarrhea-causing bacteria or intestinal bacteria can very rapidly colonize a re-used water bottle, something that you may not disinfect between every use," Rasnake said. "It's a good practice for those, if you carry a water bottle to work to drink from during the day, run it through your dishwasher every night, just to knock back the bacteria burden on that surface."
The kitchen sponge is also something that needs frequent replacing. Rasnake recommends breaking out a new sponge once a week and using disposable wipes for any potentially hazardous messes, like juices from chicken and turkey, which can contain salmonella.
"That way, you kill it with some kind of chemical and you don't reuse the device," Rasnake said.
Other objects that get germy are cell phones.
"It's something that is very infrequently cleaned or disinfected after you've touched it, and so things that you put there tend to accumulate," he said, recommending regular disinfecting with wipes.
Beware at work, too, especially if you share a desk.
"Just good hand hygiene before and after touching a shared surface, it would easily remove this bacteria from your skin," he said.
The best thing you can do, experts say, is wash your hands, lathering for a good 15 to 20 seconds. (Tip: singing through the "Happy Birthday" song twice takes about 15 to 20 seconds.) Lather the backs of your hands and under your fingernails, too. If you can, turn off the sink with a paper towel, to avoid picking up new germs. Also, Rasnake said, make sure you thoroughly dry your hands, as wet hands are more likely to spread and pick up germs.
See the Mayo Clinic's hand-washing recommendations HERE.
"Any time you touch a surface that might've been contaminated by someone else that is ill, wash your hands before you eat or rub your eyes or touch your face or mouth," he added.
What about on-the-go?
Look for a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol, experts say.
"Alcohol hand gel works well for most things, like diarrhea-causing bacteria, for instance, or the staph bacteria that would cause abscesses or sores," Rasnake said.
But sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs.
If your hands are visibly grimy, you're better off with soap and water.
"You don't need special disinfectants, you don't need antibacterial soap. You just need good, warm, soapy water," Rasnake said.
Bad germs cannot penetrate your skin, Rasnake reassured. They get in through cuts, or your mouth, nose or eyes.
The more you can wash, wipe and sanitize, the fewer bad bugs will be lurking nearby.
It's worth noting: both viruses and bad bacteria can get you sick, and the test 10News did with UT Medical Center only detected bacteria.
How much of a germaphobe are you? Put yourself to the test! Try matching the commonly touched surface with the bacteria sample it yielded.