If you know me well, you know I’m a bit of a germaphobe. Addicted to hand sanitizer. In love with Lysol. I swab down library books before I read them. I soak kitchen utensils in disinfectant after they’ve fallen on the floor. I wear long sleeves even in summer. And you’ll never find a pair of sandals in my shoetree. I prefer a fist bump to a handshake, especially during the cold and flu season. And yes, I exit a public restroom using a paper towel to grab the door handle.
What has made me like this? I hate being sick. I mean I really, really hate being sick. People do nasty, nasty things and germs are just waiting to come out and play. Taking an extra measure or two to avoid them is only prudent. So you can imagine my surprise when after all this fear-induced vigilance, I developed a MRSA infection in my right index finger last winter. That’s right, MRSA—as in methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus.
Now my germaphobia was at a fever pitch. But it didn’t stop there. Not long after I’d recovered I read an article that said researchers at Auburn University had discovered that pathogens like MRSA and E. coli can survive for days on various surfaces inside an airplane’s cabin, increasing the potential for transmission.
Researchers used actual armrests, toilet flush handles, tray tables, window shades, seats and seat pockets, inoculating them with bacteria and placing them in conditions meant to simulate the temperature and humidity of a pressurized cabin.
What they found was MRSA lasted for 168 hours on the cloth seatback pockets. In addition a virulent strain of E. coli persisted for 96 hours on armrests, 72 hours on tray tables and 48 hours on that metal button you press to flush the toilet in airplane restrooms.
My mind raced: If they’re percolating in a simulated airline cabin, they’re probably in lots of other places as well. Hardly a comforting thought. But is this a reason to panic? Yes and no, experts say.
“I think you’re going to find these organisms everywhere. They’re not just limited to healthcare settings as we all know,” says Paula Eggers, infectious disease epidemiologist with the Delaware Department of Public Health. “MRSA and other staph organisms are very common skin pathogens. MRSA just happens to be resistant to a group of antibiotics that regular staph bacteria aren’t.”
What it really boils down to is a case of “risk mitigation.” In layman’s terms that means frequent hand-washing—with plenty of soap and water. For 20 seconds or the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.
I can’t say whether this somewhat comforting revelation will eventually tame my rather rampant germaphobia. But at least for now, I’m hanging on to my hand sanitizer. Just in case.