How to avoid germs at your office
Here are the grossest, germiest parts of your office, along with how to protect yourself with simple hygiene tips.
Office spaces are ripe for the spread of infectious diseases. You may have noticed as much, if you feel like you come down with a cold — symptoms include a fever, headache, runny nose, cough, and muscle pain — every time someone in your office so much as sniffles. The reason behind this really is as simple as you may have guessed: Offices tend to be chock-full of people, which makes it much easier to spread illnesses through the air and shared objects, Dr Anubhav Gupta, a general physician based in Delhi, says.
"Before you start bathing in hand sanitizer, remember that germs are around you 24/7. Only select germs are actual pathogens that can transmit infectious diseases. Also, your immune system was made to fight pathogens. That’s why most people aren’t sick all the time," he explains. Better yet, when you do get sick, your immune system can often protect you from that specific virus strain more effectively in the future, adds Dr Gupta.
That said, office life can present a challenge to even the most robust immune systems. If you do work in an office, it helps to be aware of the sneaky places bacteria and viruses hide. We asked Dr Gupta, and Kolkata-based family medicine physician, Dr Amitabh Ray, to share a defense guide and strategy for avoiding germs in common office spaces. Here's what you need to know.
What are the germiest parts of the office?
Did you know certain surfaces and materials are easier for germs to cling to? Fomites are materials that can hold germs, like the common cold viruses, says Dr Gupta. "Unfortunately, lots of office surfaces are nonporous, and therefore, pretty good at transmitting the flu and common cold viruses. Nonporous materials, like glass, plastic, and metal are the worst," he says. Dr Gupta shared locations that are "prime candidates for touch transmission:"
• Light switches
• Faucet handles
• Water cooler buttons
• Elevator buttons
Are any office surfaces safe?
Not all parts of your office are germ-breeding grounds. "Porous materials, such as paper and clothing, trap germs deeper into their fibres, making it more difficult to transmit them from one person to another," says Dr Gupta.
Can you actually get sick from touching a germy office surface?
Dr Gupta noted that while these are germ-riddled areas, "transmission from surfaces is the least common form of spreading influenza." Keep in mind, research has shown that 60 per cent of surface germs are on items belonging to the infected person — "their desk, computer, and office equipment," he says. "The other 40 per cent of the time, infections are spread via surfaces not directly belonging to the infected person," he adds.
Dr Gupta mentions that this includes the aforementioned desktops, printer and elevator buttons. So, avoid the office printer and elevator, if you can for now. "Or after you push the button, give your hands a quick wash," says Dr Gupta. The flu and common cold viruses can stay alive on some surfaces for a number of hours. "The viruses can't live forever on these surfaces, but they can generally survive for the length of an average workday," says Dr Gupta.
What about germs in the air?
It's not just the germs on your desk that you need to watch out for. The easiest and most common way to contract the common cold and flu is directly from person to person, says Dr Roy. "A cough or sneeze can send droplets of the virus flying through the air, which can land up to six feet away," he explains. Dr Roy points out that in an office environment, the flu virus was actually most likely to be transmitted not by surfaces but by long-range airborne transmission.
"Someone infected with influenza coughing and sneezing sends tens of thousands of tiny flu virus particles into the air that can stay suspended in the air for hours, which then transmit the flu after being inhaled," he says, adding, "If flu droplets hit your nose, mouth, or eyes, the virus can start replicating in your system, and you can develop the flu, or common cold."
Like Dr Gupta, Dr Roy says that although it's not quite as risky as standing next to someone with the sniffles, you can get the flu or the common cold by touching a contaminated object, and then touching your own face, which one does countless times per day. When you see someone looking under the weather, they're essentially a walking transmission, he says.
"A person with the common cold may cough around 15-25 times per hour and sneeze around five times per hour. Unfortunately, these frequent coughs or sneezes can spread droplets containing the flu virus about one to two metres in front of and surrounding the infected person, and micro particles can actually be spread in the air across entire rooms and persist for hours," explains Dr Roy.
What should you do?
Well, for starters, see a general physician. "I recommend the flu vaccine for all high-risk groups, which includes people over 60 years, people with cardiopulmonary problems, people with chronic kidney diseases, and heart disease. All these people are at higher risk for influenza," says Dr Roy. Since it takes about two weeks after vaccination to develop immunity against the flu viruses, people who haven’t got vaccinated this year must get their shots soon, he adds. Aside from that, here are tactics for both areas of transmission within your workspace:
Surfaces: "Wipe down your personal office space with a disinfecting wipe or spray at the start and end of each workday," suggests Dr Roy. Stay home when you feel symptoms, he adds, as this will prevent the transfer of more germs. If you really have no alternative but to touch a doorknob, elevator button or an office phone, it obviously doesn’t mean anything dire is going to happen to your health, says Dr Roy. "If it did, the world’s population would probably have died out ages ago. But make sure to wash your hands with soap, frequently," he says. Hand sanitizer with at least 60 per cent alcohol is a good second option if you can’t wash your hands, he adds.
Air: Unfortunately, many infectious diseases spread through the air as sick people talk, cough, and sneeze. Even if a coworker is sick, can’t — or won’t — stay home, and is doing the polite thing of covering their coughs and sneezes, their germs are still spreading, says Dr Roy. Moreover, he adds that even if someone doesn’t seem sick, they may still be spraying virus-laden droplets through the air. For instance, people can infect others with the flu a day before any symptoms develop, he says.
"One of the best things you can do to protect yourself is to wash your hands. Beyond that, if anyone around you at work seems sick, try to stay out of their personal space if possible," says Dr Roy. Keep that in mind when interacting with a sick colleague and if a sneezy coworker comes by to chat, in addition to ending the conversation as soon as politely possible, it's a good idea to wipe your stuff down after they leave, says Dr Roy. "And don't forget to wash your hands," he adds.