Germ phobia strikes even people who should know better

  1. 60

    You know what? You have intact skin, acid in your stomach, and cilia in your lungs for a good reason. Stop worrying about normal contact with the world. Normal flora are called that for a reason-- they are all around us and they don't harm us. In fact, there's increasing evidence that they are helpful.

    Someone who was very worried of being "exposed to things" at work posted recently; there were several follow-up posts on being afraid of things outside the hospital, not wanting to touch the shopping carts or the doors in public restrooms, etc. This whole thing brought my mind back this discussion I joined in another context.

    "Every time I go to the supermarket deli counter, I have this sudden urge to bite my poor cuticles because of what I witness !!! Yup, they all wear gloves alright ! And w/ them on, they scratch their heads, noses, answer the phone, open the fridge door, touch the counter top etc etc...and then, receive each slice of whatever DIRECTLY into their dirty hands !!! This gets me crazy, so I inevitably call them over and very quietly, so not to embarrass them, I inform them that: #1 I am connected w/ the Dep't of Health (true) and #2 They have just violated sanitary protocol re: food safety guidelines. Then I politely request a change of gloves while they give me dirty looks. After this I find the manager and inform him that I am an RN affiliated w/ the Dep't of Health and his staff is in violation of the health code for food safety and ask who has instructed them in proper glove technique. This is when they tell me that none of them have had formal instruction. I ask why, and they proceed to shrug. Do you know that I actually volunteered to instruct them because I can't take it anymore ?"

    "Years ago, I was out to dinner with 3 friends at their favorite "Olive Garden" restaurant. While we were waiting for our dinner, the table next to us was vacated.
    The busboy (man) began to clear off the table of the dinnerware, silverware, glasses, etc. He then reached into his back pocket...NO GLOVES...and hauled out his rag to wipe off the table. Since it was a table for 4, he had to go around it. I was absent-mindedly observing him when I saw him wipe half of the table....then BLOW HIS NOSE INTO THE RAG...and then continued wiping down the rest of the table! I have not been able to set silverware onto a table in ANY restaurant since then. I ALWAYS ask for more napkins and lay my silverware on that. If no napkin appears, I simply wait until my meal arrives and then I place the extra silverware on the rim of the plate!

    I also told the maitre' d of the incident and he was horrified! He told us that he was going to report it to management, etc. Several weeks/months later, we were in again and he made it a point to tell us that management "had taken care of the situation and I assure you it won't happen again." My take?....I think they just fired the guy."

    "I have seen so many of these things go on, I can't even begin to recall them, but reading about the shops, deli, etc...reminds me of the time a friend and I went to lunch at "Old Country Buffet." As we sat there eating we watched a clean-up person go around to wash off the tables that people had used. I was incredulous as I watched her wipe the table with her damp towel, then the vinyl seat cushions of the booth , and THEN....still with the same cloth, not even reversing it, not that it would help....she wiped off the tops of the salt and pepper shakers. Then she proceeded to the next booth to do the same with the same towel all the time. So now we are shaking salt and pepper thru the shaker holes that have people's (butt) germs on them . I did tell the manager how disgusting and unsanitary this was and either stop it immediately and permanently or get reported to the health dept.."

    OK, now, deep breath. Assume for the most part that the writers have been buying food at those counters or restaurants for most of their adult lives, perhaps feeding children with those foodstuffs, and so on. Now, how many deadly illnesses did they contract in these seething slurries of germiness?

    There are plenty of studies to show that children who grow up with pets have fewer illnesses and fewer allergies. In the developing world, the incidence of pediatric atopy and asthma skyrockets in one generation after common pinworms are eradicated from schoolchildren-- but not in untreated adults or neighboring populations who still carry their normal commensals.

    Every first grade teacher can tell you which kids didn't go to preschool-- not because they don't know their numbers or letters, but because they spend their first year in a mixed population getting sick.

    In a recent cholera outbreak in a resort area in Indonesia, about 200 people were affected, and the only ones that died, that did not respond to ordinary IV fluids and support, were the Japanese, that notoriously germ-phobic culture, where every piece of clothing you can buy comes with embedded antimicrobials, where people wear masks on the subway, and doctors don't tell you what your diagnosis is.

    Many, many studies show that the majority of people, men and women, do not wash their hands after handling or wiping their genitals in the toilet. If so, since we are in constant contact with humans, how come we aren't all down for the count with GI disease ALL THE TIME? Don't even get me started on our favorite germ-swapping practices, all related to reproduction (or at least practicing for it) and all pleasurable. There's probably a reason for that.

    More studies are indicating that the immense numbers of chemicals, including antimicrobials, we are exposed to are --gee, I know this will come as a shock-- BAD for us. The tremendous growth of resistant organisms-- heard of that? "Kills 99.5% of household germs!" What are those other ones doing? Multiplying, that's what.

    So you ask for an extra napkin for your silverware? Who handled that napkin between the dryer and your table, and how? So you put your silverware on the edge of your plate instead of your table? Who handled the edge of that plate? Or the silverware, for that matter? So you think there are "butt germs" on the vinyl banquettes at the Country Buffet? Does your butt slide onto them, and then do you touch your pants, or your purse, or the car seat that your pants just sat on after your meal? Does your hand that helped you slide into your booth then touch the salt and pepper? Did the hands of the people who sat there before you arrived? Do you touch the rails on stairs, the buttons on elevators, try on clothes in department stores? Do you just get the sterile ones, or maybe did someone else touch them too? What did they do with their hands before that?

    You can see where I'm going with this. Actual pathogens are bad. I'm not advocating that we should go back to wells on the street corners that dispense hepatitis and typhoid with every bucket. I'm not saying we take Semmelweiss and Pasteur out of the medical and nursing curricula. I'm not saying we shouldn't change enteral feeding bags really often, give up scrubbing before surgery, forget glutaraldehyde in the endoscopy suite, use linens from off a hospital floor, or save money in Surgicenters by making single-use vials and lancets multi-use (that's been done...and it didn't wrk out well).

    But honest to god, this phobia about germs, all germs, is ridiculous. There's increasing evidence that your gut and skin bacteria (and BTW, how did they get there and from where, huh?) have beneficial effects. People evolved to live with commensals like worms; our immune systems are built and maintained to work with that. If you don't let them do what they are on guard to do, they are weakened when we need them, or they go looking for something else to do, and that's when the trouble starts.

    Maybe we should start a campaign to have people STOP washing their hands so much, in the interest of the overall public health. Boost the collective immune system, and the whole population benefits. It's what immunization was before Jenner-- exposure to germs makes your immune system make antibodies.

    So get out there-- pick your nose, scratch before you make dinner for your family, stick your fingers in the batter to taste it, then do it again. Pat the dog, then form the meatballs and roll out the pie crust. Don't panic if your kid has a permanent snot-nose the first three years of her life-- she'll probably never be sick much again. Let your grandchild gnaw on your fingers even if you haven't just slathered them with alco-gel first (come to think about it, how good is alco-gel for a baby, anyway?)

    Go play in the dirt, swim in a pond. It's a big bacterial-laden world out there. If you want a decent immune system, don't live in a bubble...or delude yourself that you can. And for heaven's sake, stop worrying about normal human contact in public places. It's not that harmful.
    Last edit by Joe V on Apr 2, '13
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    xoemmylouox, Paws2people, ampela, and 57 others like this.

  2. Visit  GrnTea profile page

    About GrnTea , BSN, MSN, RN

    GrnTea has 'since Florence was a probie' year(s) of experience and specializes in 'legal, teaching, LCP, CM'. From 'out in the country'; Joined Apr '11; Posts: 11,415; Likes: 27,729.

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    59 Comments so far...

  3. Visit  brownbook profile page
    I hate to say it....I have a disabled grandson...but I do wonder if the strange increase in autism is related to anti everything, germ phobic, generation. Mothers don't drink, smoke, drink coffee, take any OTC, we keep everything so clean and sanitized, etc. and look what has happened!
    Flare, Syrenia, and amoLucia like this.
  4. Visit  CT Pixie profile page
    Wish I could "like" this more than once. I want to scream when I see family/friends basically bathe their babies/children in Purel etc constantly. I am always telling them, you are making it so that the kids immune system can never really kick in and learn to deal with 'germs'.

    I was a pre-Purel baby, as were my children. We always had/have them wash hands after using the bathroom, before eating etc. But I wasn't one to really freak out if the kids dropped something on the floor and ate it before I could grab it. I think my children's bodies were bathed more by the dogs tongue than by me with soap and water (haha). My kids played in the dirt and yes, EEEK, might have eaten some. My babies gnawed on my unwashed hands, and were held by people who hadn't bathed in alcohol gels before touching them.

    Guess what, neither of my girls have allergies, were overly sick (nothing more than the occasional seasonal cold), or have health issues. Both are healthy kids. When most of their class is out with whatever the 'bug of the day' is, my kids are front and center in class, never missing any school d/t the bugs going aorund. Can't say the same for their younger cousins who have parents that use any form of antibacterial substance they can get their hands on...who were not allowed to play in the dirt, etc.
    xoemmylouox, T.H.R.N., Mossback, and 11 others like this.
  5. Visit  champagnesupeRNova profile page
    Some people (like me) act like a germaphobe not because we are afraid of getting sick or contracting a disease - it's because we think certain things are just GROSS. Am I totally grossed out by having my food touched by other's people hands, or having my restaurant table be wiped down with a snot rag, or shaking my salt out of a butt-germ infested shaker? YES! Do I think I'm going to get sick from it? No. I don't even think about that aspect. It's a gross, gross world out there.

    Just providing another perspective.
    calivianya, ampela, crossingfingers10, and 15 others like this.
  6. Visit  tewdles profile page
    I am not a germaphobe and I embrace the concept of dirt being good for us...

    One place where I am careful about what I touch is on cruise ships. They are very clean, but having a few thousand people captive on a ship for 7 days is scary for me...I don't touch the hand rails on the ships...period.
    xoemmylouox and jtmarcy12 like this.
  7. Visit  BCgradnurse profile page
    Excellent article! I also believe that being too clean is detrimental. I think hand sanitizer and anti-microbial usage is out of hand, and contributes to the creation of super-bugs that don't respond to antibiotics. There's documented evidence that the rise in asthma and allergies in general, is at least in part due to low exposure to antigens in childhood. So, get dirty, play with the animals, and use common sense and soap and water.
    liebling5, jtmarcy12, %63theend, and 8 others like this.
  8. Visit  VivaLasViejas profile page
    I was just thinking about how we used to drink water out of the garden hose, and share our friends' Cokes without even wiping off the top of the bottle, and we seldom got sick. OTOH, the thought of eating food that's even touched the floor just icks me out---there is NO five-second rule in my house, unless of course you count the dog, who waits all of half a second before she's on it like stink on poo. LOL!
    liebling5, besaangel, uRNmyway, and 5 others like this.
  9. Visit  Wrench Party profile page
    I totally agree with this. When I went to college, I was sick and had bad allergies constantly because I wasn't exposed to everything I normally was growing up: pets, the grass, dirt, the outside world. Now than I'm an adult and spend my time sucking down who-knows-what when I'm running, can play in the dirt in the garden, and don't clean as fastidiously as my roommates in college did, I'm never sick.
  10. Visit  LadyFree28 profile page
    Hear HEAR!!!

    My bonus is working in Peds...once I herded with the kiddos, my illnesses went down significantly.

    I grew up with a mom who is undiagnosed OCD. I had to have a "come to Jesus meeting" about WHY she was getting so sick the past few years...since she has "relaxed" some, she has actually had less common colds and other viruses.

    Oh, I believe in the 5-10 second rule...but that's only because I have a wet vac for my kitchen...I may have made a ton if mud pies as a child, but it doesn't help much cooking much these days, lol.
    xoemmylouox, VivaLasViejas, and tewdles like this.
  11. Visit  Anoetos profile page
    GrnTea, I think I love you.
    xoemmylouox, uRNmyway, GrnTea, and 3 others like this.
  12. Visit  beckster_01 profile page
    Ah the voice of reason. I am a germaphobe at work, but nowhere else and I'm not dead yet. I also rarely get ill, and if I do it lasts for a day or two. Coincidence? I think not. When I was a kid a climbed trees, dug holes, and played in streams. I observed the 5 second rule and my parents had the common sense to teach me when that rule doesn't apply. I was homeschooled and many people said I would get sick more frequently when I went to college, but nothing really changed. I am all for washing hands, but there is a difference between pathogenic bacteria and the normal (unavoidable) flora of day to day life.
    liebling5, uRNmyway, ktliz, and 6 others like this.
  13. Visit  carsm3 profile page
    Gosh, I used to be a germ freak to the fullest. I'm talking cleaning everything with PURE bleach. I have calmed down a lot with the whole germ thing. I have major anxiety about vomiting, but I am dealing with it much better then I did in the past. Now I eat without washing, kiss the dog, don't hover over the toilet seat, all kinds of germy stuff and I don't get freaked. I used to load myself down with Vit C but never really noticed a real benefit from it. I have since stopped and still get the same amount of colds that I used to. Can't really escape germs because they are all around us! Somethings I just can't deal with. The guy blowing his snot in the rag and then wiping the table?! Good Lord I think I may have passed out. Food dropping on the floor is nasty also!
    xoemmylouox likes this.
  14. Visit  SuzieVN profile page
    There are also studies that indicate that pets cause allergies and asthma in children. I took care of a baby that lived in a place with a filthy dog. It stank like sewage- never washed, not once, thick matted nasty fur, etc., literally. I had to hold my breath when it walked past me. That little baby had a runny nose every day for over a year, and a chronic cough that started at age 2 months, with a pneumonia at age one year, and a gradually worsening wheezing in his poor little lungs. Clearly, he had developed asthma. I used to perform postural drainage on the poor little thing while he watched cartoons- it calmed him down, big time, and it really helped, temporarily.

    This reminds me of a funny: Walking into a house, a friend said: "You can't tell I have a cat, can you? I buy that new type of litter." Sure- I could only already smell the cat from outside, with the door closed. But I said:"You have a CAT? Wow. Who would have KNOWN!"

    Humans did not evolve living in close contact with animals.

    Cleanliness is next to godliness...
    Anonymous865 likes this.

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