The reason behind this really is as simple as you may have guessed: Offices tend to be chock-full of people, which makes it much easier to spread illnesses through the air and shared objects, Alexander L. Greninger M.D., assistant director of the University of Washington Medicine Clinical Virology Laboratory, tells SELF.
Before you start bathing in hand sanitizer (always ill-advised), remember that germs are around you 24/7. Only select germs are actual pathogens that can transmit infectious diseases. Also, your immune system was made to fight pathogens. That’s why most people aren’t sick all the time, Keith Roach M.D., associate professor in clinical medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, tells SELF. Better yet, when you do get sick, your immune system can often protect you from that specific virus strain more effectively in the future.
That said, office life can present a challenge to even the most robust immune systems. Here are seven things that tend to be seriously germy in most workplaces, along with how to protect yourself from catching the communicable office illness du jour.
Think about how many things you touch in the course of the workday. Then accept the reality that many of the germs your hands collect have direct access to your keyboard. If you touch body parts like your mouth, nose, and eyes as you type, you’re giving hitchhiking germs a ride to various entry points into your body.
A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that 96 percent of the 25 keyboards sampled were contaminated with microorganisms like E. coli, which can cause food poisoning. The situation can be even worse if you’re not the only one using a keyboard, like in the case of a shared computer in a conference room. In 2009, the American Journal of Infection Control published a study that examined 35 keyboards in three different university computer labs, finding that multi-user workstations had about four and a half times as many bacterial colonies per square centimeter.
Granted, having bacteria on your keyboard doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get sick. Still, this is a good reminder to wash and dry your hands thoroughly before and after using your keyboard, along with regularly throughout the day. (Hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol is a good second option if you can’t wash your hands.) You can also clean your keyboard with something simple like a disinfecting wipe every day, the CDC says.
If you tally up how many times you touch a doorknob every day at work, you might be surprised. You might also be a little horrified when you think about how many other people touch those knobs, too.
Get creative depending on the door in question. Is it a bathroom door, so you can use the paper towel from drying your hands to cover the knob when you leave? Is it a conference room door that you could nudge open with your shoulder rather than using your hand?
If you really have no alternative but to touch a doorknob, it obviously doesn’t mean anything dire is going to happen to your health. If it did, the world’s population would probably have died out ages ago. But make sure to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer frequently. If you’re feeling particularly magnanimous, you can disinfect office surfaces people touch, such as doorknobs, but that’s up to you.
You should also be sure to get your flu vaccine every single year. All the hand-washing and disinfectant in the world can’t compare to getting a vaccine meant to protect you from the inside out.
3. The refrigerator handle
The germiest office spots are usually touched by many and disinfected by few. Unless someone is on top of wiping down the office kitchen’s refrigerator handle every day, it might be germy enough to put you off your food.
Wash your hands after opening the refrigerator, but before grabbing cutlery or eating whatever treasured item you stashed in there. Otherwise, it can be like rolling out the welcome mat for germs into your body. “You open the refrigerator, grab your apple and eat it, and next thing you know, you've just eaten whatever was on the refrigerator handle,” Dr. Roach says. Again, is it a guarantee that you’ll get sick? No. Is the very thought of it heave-worthy? Depends on your constitution, but it certainly could be.
4. Kitchen sponges
It’s a special kind of betrayal when something ostensibly meant to help you clean is actually quite dirty, but yeah. Folks who study microorganisms typically aren’t fans of sponges.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outright says they don’t recommend using sponges to clean things. Sponges are tough to disinfect because their dampness and little holes create a great breeding ground for bacteria.
You can try microwaving or boiling office kitchen sponges to clean them, but the results are mixed when it comes to the efficacy of either option. Instead, it might be easier to see if your office can replace the kitchen sponge with some kind of dishwashing brush. These items lack the little holes on sponges that can hide food and breed bacteria, are easier to clean, and can dry in much less time. That’s known as a win-win-win.
5. Faucet handles
If the faucets in your office have sensors to turn the water on and off without you touching any handles, you’re in luck. Otherwise, anyone who washes their hands is likely going to need to touch a faucet in some way to do it. (We’d hope that would be everyone in your office, but we’re being realistic here.) Faucets have the added downside of often being near toilets.
That brings up concerns about pathogens that can be transmitted through fecal particles, Dr. Roach says. He points to norovirus, the most common culprit behind foodborne illness in the United States, according to the CDC. It can spread in a variety of ways, including through tiny flecks of poop and vomit infected people deposit onto common surfaces, like…bathroom faucet handles.
Try turning any faucets on and off with your elbows or using a paper towel so you don’t have to touch the handles. If neither of those options is feasible, use hand sanitizer after you’ve touched a faucet.
6. Anything else people are touching all the time
It’s smart to think about how the nature of your specific office lends itself to germiness. Do you have a team meeting at the same table every afternoon? Is there a coffee maker around which everyone congregates first thing in the A.M.?
Whatever the case may be, there’s the not-so-fun reality that a sick coworker might be touching a ton of stuff that you touch, too. While taking precautions on a daily basis might feel a little over the top, if you know you have a sick coworker, Dr. Roach says it’s totally fine to rub down common items with disinfectant wipes before you use them. If that’s not easy to do (like if you don’t want to be the only person wiping down your chair and table space before a meeting), you can also just be extra-diligent about other hygiene steps like washing your hands.
7. The air (sorry)
This is just unfair, but unfortunately, many infectious diseases spread through the air as sick people talk, cough, and sneeze. “Those respiratory droplets get around,” Dr. Roach says. Even if a coworker is sick, can’t (or won’t) stay home, and is doing the polite thing of covering their coughs and sneezes, their germs are still spreading. All you need is a couple of sick people in an office, and suddenly you could be inhaling a gross amount of viruses (in terms of both amount and ick-factor).
Even if someone doesn’t seem sick, they may still be spraying virus-laden droplets through the air. For instance, people can infect others with the flu a day before any symptoms develop, according to the CDC.
One of the best things you can do to protect yourself is—say it with us—to wash your hands. There’s a good reason infectious disease experts are basically obsessed with this hygiene habit. Beyond that, if anyone around you at work seems sick, try to stay out of their personal space if possible. While the jury is still out on exactly how far germs can spread through the air, the CDC says that viruses like the flu can travel 6 feet as people cough, sneeze, and talk. Keep that in mind when interacting with a sick colleague.
Also, encourage your sick coworkers to stay home if that’s remotely possible in your office culture, and be sure to do the same when you’re ill, too. It’s really what’s best for everyone.