5 germ-filled places where you're most likely to catch a cold or flu

Germ filled places where you can catch a coldKate Genovese, a registered nurse for 30 years, was heading to Las Vegas for a conference when she noticed a woman in front of her on the airport escalator sneezing. The woman had the best of intentions -- she covered her nose and mouth. But she loused things up when she placed her germ-filled hand back on the escalator handrail.

"Those germs were just waiting to be passed on to the next person," Genovese told WalletPop in a telephone interview.

If those germs did indeed find a host or hosts, many of us would soldier on, including showing up for work with tissue box and cold medicine in hand. While it may win you some brownie points for a day, it could prove to be a pricey mistake.

Presenteeism, when employees go to work sick and aren't productive, costs U.S. businesses anywhere from $70 billion to $200 billion a year, depending upon the study. The cost may grow even higher in these tough economic times, when companies are squeezing as much out of their workers as they can and employees feel they can't afford to call in sick.

When going out this cold and flu season, keep an eye on these five popular spots where germs like to hitch a ride:

Hospitals
You go to the hospital to get better. But too often these days, people are catching illnesses from other patients and staff. Hospital-acquired illnesses, also known as nosocomial infections, are especially deadly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year 2 million patients contract a hospital-associated illness; about 90,000 die from those infections.

It doesn't help that hospital staff, including physicians, go to work when they're sick. According to a report in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, 80% of physicians keep working even while sick. Policies must change to include unrestricted paid sick leave and the screening of sick employees to protect patients, concluded authors Drs. Eric Widera, Anna Chang and Helen Chen.

Restaurants
Those headlines about salmonella from the hamburgers or salsa from a restaurant chain can be pretty scary. But the really frightening news is what you can catch from the buffet tables. "Diners may not wash their hands before handling food, or they may be harboring germs that can be transmitted from an errant sneeze or cough onto a chafing dish," Lauren Gelman, senior health editor at Prevention magazine and a contributor to Don't Get Sick, told WalletPop via e-mail.

If you don't catch it from other diners, you could catch it from the staff. Some 63% of restaurant workers say they chopped, cooked and served while ill, according to a survey from national labor group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. Ninety percent said they don't have heath insurance from their employer, and 87% don't get sick days.

Airplanes

You and dozens of people are confined in a small space, breathing recycled air that's dry as a desert. Catching something can be as easy as a sneeze or a cough. And with many more people crisscrossing the globe, your exposure to more exotic germs has increased.

A spotless cabin and bathroom would go a long way to help lower your chances of deplaning with germs, but don't count on it, especially on long-distance flights. Nor can you rely on the water. In a 2004 study, the Environmental Protection Agency found bacteria like E. coli lurking in the tap water in the food preparation area and in the bathrooms of several of the tested planes. The study has not been repeated.

Grocery stores
Filled with every food you can imagine, supermarkets are also chock full of germs. They travel from aisle to aisle when you forget to clean your hands after picking up that pound of chicken or ground beef. Shopping cart handles are also magnets for germs, said Genovese. "Think about the hundreds of men, women and children touching those handrails."

Thanks to the recession, workers are also likely to show up under the weather. A rep of the northeastern region of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union told WalletPop by telephone that his fellow union reps are hearing more stories of members going into work sick because they don't want to come up short on their paychecks.

Hotels
Bedbugs may be infesting the media, but germs are what you need to keep an eye on when booking a room. "Hotel rooms may get daily housecleaning service, but that doesn't mean every surface -- like remote controls or light switches -- is regularly cleaned, and research has shown that these can harbor past guests' cold germs," warned Gelman.

Nor is the hotel pool safe. According to a CDC report released last May, of more than 121,000 public pools inspected in 2008, one in eight were shut down due to dirty water and other violations. That's not exactly surprising when one in five adults admitted that they have peed in a public pool, according to a survey of 1,000 Americans last year by the Water Quality and Health Council.

The best defense against any of these germ-infested places is to wash your hands with soap and water. If you can't get to a sink, then keep an alcohol-based hand sanitizer handy "at key infection moments, such as after using the bathroom, before meals, after you're near someone sick, after touching a germy object and when you get home from running errands," Gelman said.

Another tip: Teach yourself not to touch your eyes, nose and mouth too often during cold and flu season, since these are the main ways germs can creep in.

With flu season in full swing, don't overlook getting a flu shot. Fears of the H1N1 may have died down, but, said Gelman, "who wants to be sidelined from work for days feeling completely run down and sick as a dog?"

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