Common Germs

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It’s not possible or even desirable to rid the home of all germs and other microbes.

Microorganisms are the building blocks of life but some are harmful to humans. These are commonly referred to as germs, a catch-all term for these invisible organisms which cause disease, namely bacteria, fungi and viruses.

To protect you and your family from germs, hygiene experts say a system of "targeted hygiene" should be applied in the house.

Targeted hygiene means getting rid of as many germs as possible, where and when there is a risk of them spreading and causing infection.

Germs mainly enter the home on people, food and pets. Once in, they can travel around from person to person, or from person to surface and back again, a process called cross-contamination.

Common germs present in the household are:

  • MRSA: (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), this is a strain of the common Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. It’s resistant to many antibiotics, making the infections it causes difficult to treat. Washing hands with soap and hot water is the single most important step in preventing the spread of MRSA.
  • E. coli 0157: a more dangerous strain of the common E. coli bacterium usually found in the gut of all healthy humans. It can cause severe intestinal illness. Pay careful attention to hygiene around food and around the lavatory, especially if someone has diarrhoea.
  • Norovirus: also known as the winter vomiting bug. Norovirus is the most common cause of infectious gastroenteritis in England. Treat your hands as potentially contaminated. Wash them thoroughly with soap and hot water after preparing food and before eating, and especially after using the lavatory.
  • Clostridium difficile: also known as C. diff. This is a bacterium found in the gut of less than 5% of healthy adults. It is kept in check by the normal, 'good' bacterial population of the intestine. It is common in the intestine of babies and infants, but does not cause disease because its poisons do not damage their immature intestinal cells. C. diff can cause diarrhoea, ranging from a mild disturbance to a very severe illness with ulceration and bleeding from the colon and, at worst, perforation of the intestine leading to peritonitis. It can be fatal. Make sure hands are thoroughly washed before and after preparing food, and especially after going to the lavatory.

Many of these germs are caught in the home. About 40% of reported food-borne outbreaks in Europe occur in private homes, reported the World Health Organisation in 2003.

Cleanliness expert Sally Bloomfield, of the International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene (IFH), says home hygiene does not mean we have to be obsessive about deep cleaning our homes. “Our routine daily or weekly cleaning habits actually have little effect in reducing our exposure to harmful microbes,” she says.

She says the superhighways for the spread of germs are the hands, and surfaces that come into contact with hands, cleaning cloths and utensils.

“What concerns me is that while our homes may look spotless, our hygiene standards in terms of controlling hazardous microbes aren't as good as we think,” she says.

Bloomfield says targeted hygiene is more effective at preventing germs from spreading than the usual “once-weekly deep-down clean”.

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