New Study Shows Cold and Flu Germs Spread Easily Throughout the Office

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Dreading the upcoming cold and flu season and the sick days that go with it? According to new research from University of Arizona microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba, staying healthy this season is nothing to sneeze at when everyone around you is coughing and sniffling.

In laboratory tests, Gerba and his researchers raised the basic question: how do cold and flu bugs make their way around the office? In looking for an answer, they found an infected person can leave a trail of viruses on every surface they touch, potentially exposing an entire office.

"When someone is infected with a cold or flu bug, the surfaces they touch during the day become germ transfer points," said Gerba. "Because some cold and flu viruses can survive on surfaces for up to 72 hours, an office can become an incubator."

For the testing, Gerba and his team zeroed in on doorknobs, staplers and phones, three of the most widely touched surfaces in office common areas. They applied a test virus to the hands of study participants and then asked them to touch multiple surfaces in succession.

They touched a doorknob first, then a phone and finally a stapler, leaving behind thousands of viral particles along the way: 130,000 on the doorknob; 110,000 on the phone and 90,000 on the stapler. With only 10 to 100 particles of a common cold virus needed to infect the average person, the test results add up to cold comfort, Gerba said.

"Even if someone goes home, the virus they brought with them can linger," Gerba said. "In fact, even after 72 hours, 700 viral particles of the cold virus still remained on test surfaces, enough to potentially infect seven people!"

Studying office environments is nothing new for Gerba, who last year undertook a major study for The Clorox Company of how bacteria piles up in offices. The study -- the first of its kind to measure normal bacterial levels inside offices across America -- found that the average desk harbors 20,961 germs per square inch. That is 400 times more than the average toilet seat.

"Desks are really bacteria cafeterias," said Gerba. "They're breakfast bars, lunch tables and everything else, as we spend more hours at the office."

Gerba and his researchers found that unless desks and other surfaces were wiped clean with a disinfectant during the day, bacteria levels climbed, peaking after lunch.

"One good way to beat bacteria and help stop the spread of germs is to regularly clean your personal workspace," said Gerba. "During our studies, we found that using disinfecting wipes can dramatically reduce the level of germs and therefore help reduce your chances of illness."

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