Wash your hands. That's a common mantra — and a worthy one — as the H1N1 flu continues to spread.
But all the hand-washing in the world may not be a match for the germs and viruses lurking on household surfaces.
"There is a big appreciation for influenza that you can get it from your hands, but a lack of appreciation that viruses can be picked up on surfaces," said John Oxford, who heads the Hygiene Council and is a professor of virology at St. Bartholomew's and the Royal London Hospital.
The Hygiene Council — comprising global experts in the field of public health and infectious diseases — recently released the results of its second annual International Home Hygiene Study. The 2009 survey of bacteria found on home surfaces in eight countries, including the United States, shows that the kitchen remains the source of the most germy surfaces. Kitchen cloths and sponges are the biggest source of bacteria, followed by sink faucets.
We asked Oxford and Joe Rubino of Reckitt Benckiser, a corporate sponsor of the Hygiene Council and the maker of Lysol, to identify the dirtiest places in the house, and Sedgwick County extension agent Denise Dias to tell us how to sanitize various surfaces.
1. Kitchen cloths and sponges
People often use sponges or cloths to wipe germs from surfaces in the kitchen. As a result, 70 percent of kitchen sponges in U.S. homes failed the hygiene test by having high levels of bacteria, according to the Hygiene Council.
The council recommends running sponges through the dishwasher regularly and washing kitchen cloths on the hot cycle in the washing machine.
2. Kitchen faucets
Typically people wash their hands after handling raw meat in the kitchen, but they touch the faucet to turn on the water, leaving bacteria on it. The Hygiene Council found that more than half of faucets in American homes are covered in bacteria.
Use a disinfectant spray on faucets to kill germs.
3. Tub and shower
Rubino identified the shower as the third germiest place in the home. The bathtub may have 100 times more bacteria than the trash can, according to the Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community at Simmons College in Boston. Dead skin cells left in the tub can carry germs.
Disinfect showers and tubs twice a week.
4. Pet food dish
Most pet food dishes stay on the floor and do not get washed regularly. "It's not practical to disinfect it every time, but wash your hands after you touch it," Rubino said. "Pets — we love them — but they don't practice good hygiene."
Wash your hands after you touch a pet food dish.
5. Microwave touch screen
This spot is notorious for not getting cleaned. "You can put something in that is raw to cook it and could leave behind E. coli or Salmonella" on the touch screen of the microwave, Rubino said. He added that even though the food comes out cooked, the germs that can make you sick are left on the outside of the microwave for the next person to touch.
Wipe down the microwave touch screen regularly, especially after cooking raw meat.
6. TV remote
Imagine the typical couch potatoes — watching TV while they absent-mindedly chew their fingernails, snack on food and flip through channels, leaving all kinds of bacteria on the remote. "Anything in your home that you touch a lot leaves germs behind," Rubino said.
Sanitize the remote control regularly to prevent sickness. That can be done by dampening a soft cloth or paper towel with rubbing alcohol _ no drips _ and wiping the remote, Dias says.
7. Light switches
Touching the light switch is practically unavoidable, but keeping it clean is not. The bathroom light switch can have as many germs as the trash bin, according to the Simmons College in-home bacterial study.
Disinfect light switches twice a week, or every day if a member of the household is sick.
8. Baby changing table
"When changing a baby's diaper, in all likelihood bacterial contamination will occur" Rubino said. He likens the changing table to a dirty toilet seat that the baby's whole body touches. During diaper changes, the baby wipes container, the diaper packaging, the trash can and anything around the changing area get contaminated with bacteria through touching after handling a dirty diaper.
Clean the baby changing table area often.
Beyond the top eight germiest places are other household surfaces that need attention, Dias says. These include door and refrigerator handles and telephone receivers.
"They tend to be those kind of places where germs accumulate and people don't think to clean," Dias says.
Here is Dias's guide to how to clean and/or disinfect various surfaces:
* As mentioned above, rubbing alcohol poured on a soft cloth or paper towel with no drips can be used to wipe surfaces that can't take moisture such as TV remotes and phone receivers.
* Use Lysol or another disinfecting spray on things you can't wash and that aren't porous.
* Bleach and water can be used to disinfect items that can handle bleach. "It does not have to be strong to be effective. It can be a pretty weak solution," Dias says. If you use cloths to clean with instead of disposable wipes or paper towels, she recommends washing the cloths in hot water in the washing machine and adding bleach to the water. The same should be done for towels and sheets used by a sick person.
For items such as colored towels and sheets that can't handle chlorine bleach, you can use oxygen bleach such as Oxiclean instead. It won't disinfect quite as thoroughly as chlorine bleach but "it's really close," Dias says.
* Drying in a dryer also kills germs. If you have something such as a certain type of pillow that you can't wash in the washing machine, fluffing it in the heat of the dryer will kill germs.
* You don't have to buy anti-bacterial soap when looking for cleaners to wash your hands or household surfaces, Dias said. Regular soap and water do a good job of cleaning. Add a spray of Lysol or other disinfectant on top of that for those household areas that need extra disinfecting.