5 Not-So-Obvious Places That Can Make You Sick

E-Coli under a microscope

NIAID/Wikimedia Commons 

With cold and flu season upon us, we've been thinking about infectious diseases and nasties like E. coli. More specifically, we've been thinking about how to steer clear of them without resorting to pandemic masks and filling our bathtubs with Purell. While there are a ton of obvious places that scream "germs!" — gyms, airplane bathrooms, waiting rooms, kindergarten classrooms, and petting zoos to name a few — there are plenty of bacteria-ridden hotspots outside of your home (which, we hate to break it to you, is the germiest location of all). Here are five often-overlooked places.

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Hotel room

Photo: Elizabeth Backus/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

Sure the bed is made, the linens are freshly laundered, the carpet has been vacuumed and everything is seemingly spic, span and in its place, but despite being cleaner looking than your own home, a hotel room — even one of the four-star variety — is the kind of place where germs check in and rarely check out. That said, a hotel room shouldn't be overtly dirty (if it is, you're not spending enough time hunting around on Tripadvisor.com), but deep cleanings that rid the space of pesky microorganisms aren’t performed for every new guest.

Given that disinfectants aren’t applied on a regular basis to frequently touched objects and surfaces — remote controls, light switches, faucets, doorknobs, phones, the room service menu — it's best to take full advantage of those tiny complementary soaps, along with plenty of hot water, during your hotel stay to ward off germs. And, of course, it doesn't hurt to have natural hand sanitizer along with a package of antibacterial wipes for your own hotel room scrub-down.

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Movie theater

Photo: Fusionstudio/Shutterstock

If you saw the 1995 film “Outbreak,” you’re probably already a bit wary of the infectious disease-spreading potential of movie theaters, public gathering places filled with highly trafficked bathrooms, salty finger foods and hordes of sick children. And, of course, there are the seats (aka the germ sponges). To avoid coming in contact with unsavory bacteria during your next visit to the local multiplex, use common sense: Wash or apply sanitizer to your hands before shoveling popcorn into your mouth and move seats if the guy next to you pauses to loudly blow his nose between guffaws. Also, don’t put your bag or coat on the ground in front of you and avoid reusable 3-D glasses.

According to ABC News, in 2010 Good Housekeeping tested reusable 3-D movie glasses at seven theaters in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area and found them to be covered with the germs responsible for serious maladies such as food poisoning, pneumonia, sepsis, staph infections and, of course, pink eye. However, 3-D glasses may soon go the way of free airplane pillows as Sony plans to stop reusing them and start charging moviegoers for single-use pairs.

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Photo: Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau Follow/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

When it comes to germs and cleanliness in restaurants, all eyes are usually on the kitchen and for good reason. But one of the most ubiquitous — and most touched — elements of dining out, the menu, is also the most germ-infested. As reported by Prevention, a recent study in the Journal of Medical Virology found that cold and flu viruses can survive for 18 hours on hard surfaces and that includes passed-around-but-never-washed restaurant menus. Since donning a pair of surgical gloves just to peruse the daily specials sheet at your local café probably isn’t the most socially acceptable idea, simply excuse yourself to wash your hands after you've ordered and the menu has left the table. And if your server brings back a dessert menu ... unless they don’t mind reciting it to you, looks like it may be time to wash up again.

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Grocery store

Photo: Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine/Flickr [CC by 1.0]

When most shoppers enter grocery stores, they enter the "supermarket zone" where nothing else matters but getting in, getting out and saving a few bucks in the process. If any thought is given to picking up something nasty, it’s given to the food — particularly fresh fruits and veggies, meats and dairy — itself. However, don’t forget the shopping cart handles. According to a University of Arizona study, 72 percent of 85 shopping cart handles sampled in four states tested positive for fecal bacteria in a greater amount than most public bathrooms. Additionally, E. coli was detected on half of 36 shopping cart handle samples. Lovely. The next time you do your food shopping, don’t forget your list, your coupons ... and your antibacterial wipes if your local supermarket doesn't already provide them.

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Photo: Chris Bennett/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

A library, sterile, serene and mostly food-free, isn’t the most obvious hand-sanitizer-worthy place. But think about it: They’re filled with sneezing kids, wheezing elderly folks and lots and lots of surfaces — shelves, desktops, counters, computer keyboards, drinking fountains, you name it — that have been touched by hundreds upon hundreds of hands. Plus, if your local library is anything like ours, there’s probably a book or two floating around boasting some mighty mysterious stains. We wouldn’t recommend smuggling in a bottle of Lysol or completely avoiding libraries; just make sure that you remember to wash your hands thoroughly after a visit ... and to return your books on time.