When Should I Worry About...

Germs: The Most Likely (& Sometimes Surprising) Places to Find Them

June 12, 2023 - Katie McCallum

When we think of germ-y places, some obvious spots come to mind — public toilets, for instance. But where else are germs hiding?

“Germs are small microorganisms — viruses, bacteria and parasites — that can cause disease,” says Dr. Ashley Drews, infectious disease physician at Houston Methodist. “We can’t see them with the naked eye, but germs really are everywhere.”

They’re present in the air, on surfaces, on food and, yes, even in our homes. And Dr. Drews points out that a lot of the germs we come into contact with on a daily basis can cause illness — the flu, COVID-19, food poisoning and more — if we’re not careful.

“People generally seem more concerned about germs in public spaces, but we have to worry about the germs that are both in our homes and outside of our homes,” adds Dr. Drews.

Where are the most likely places to find germs?

Starting inside the home, Dr. Drews says that the bathroom and kitchen are the most germ-infested areas, in part because they include many of the frequently touched surfaces that can be loaded with germs.

“There are less obvious things to think about like high-touch items, handheld electronics and, yes, your smartphone,” adds Dr. Drews. “It’s why the official recommendation is to disinfect your phone on a daily basis.”

Frequently touched surfaces and items around your home (or personal office) that germs can live on include:

  • Cabinet handles
  • Countertops
  • Doorknobs, door handles and faucet handles
  • Light switches
  • Handheld electronics
  • Phones (including your smartphone)
  • TV remotes
  • Computer keyboard and mouse
  • Toilets
  • Towels
  • Toys

Moving outside the home, several of these same items and surfaces can also be loaded with germs — doorhandles, toilets, faucets and shared electronic devices or equipment.

But there are a few more specific watchouts that Dr. Drews identifies, including:

  • Elevator buttons
  • Point-of-sale keypads at stores, gas stations and restaurants
  • Shopping carts

“This is when hand sanitizer becomes important,” says Dr. Drews. “You can imagine how many people are touching the gas pump and its buttons, for instance. After pumping gas, that's a great time to use hand sanitizer you keep in your car before you start touching your steering wheel, temperature dials and various buttons.”

This brings up an important point: When we pick up germs from somewhere else, we can then contaminate other surfaces if we’re not careful.

How to stay safe from germs

Germs can spread from person-to-person through infectious respiratory droplets, as well as other means, but indirect spread from surface-to-person is common, too.


This means that it's possible to get sick by touching a surface contaminated with germs and then touching your face or biting your nails. It also means that, if you're sick, practicing proper cough etiquette can help reduce the chance that you contaminate surfaces around you.

Your best defense against germs that can live on surfaces is to:

  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Avoid touching your face, particularly your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Regularly clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces
  • Avoid directly touching surfaces commonly touched by many different people when you can

An important point: As basic as hand washing sounds, a lot of us often don’t make the effort and take the time to do it right.

“When washing your hands, make sure you get a good, foamy lather and are really rubbing your hands together, covering all of the surfaces of your hands,” explains Dr. Drews.

Time matters, too. The process above should last for about 20 seconds — or, as a rule of thumb, the length of time it takes to hum the Happy Birthday song twice.

Another step we typically skimp on is drying our hands after washing them.

“Use a clean towel or an air dryer to get your hands completely dry,” adds Dr. Drews. “Wherever there is moisture, germs and dirt can accumulate.”

How to clean your smartphone

One of those commonly touched items that needs to be cleaned regularly is your smartphone. It goes just about everywhere with you, after all. It’s why the CDC recommends disinfecting it every single day.

But improper cleaning can cause damage your smartphone — which you likely spent a lot of money on — so make sure you’re disinfecting it according to your manufacturer’s recommendations.

Tips for properly disinfecting a smartphone:

  • Power down the device before cleaning
  • Remove the case to ensure you are able to clean all surfaces of the phone effectively
  • Wring out excess moisture from a disinfecting wipe and gently clean your device, being careful to not let any moisture from the wipe seep into the buttons, speaker, microphone or earpiece
  • Don’t forget to use the wring-out disinfectant wipe to clean your case, as well
  • Never spray disinfect or use antibacterial gels on your phone
  • Avoid cleaners that are advertised as a strong commercial cleaning product

If cleaning your phone every day doesn’t sound feasible, Dr. Drews adds that doing so every other day is a great compromise.

“The official recommendation is every day, but something is better than nothing,” says Dr. Drews. “A lot of people aren't cleaning their phones on any type of regular basis, so every other day would be a great start.”

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