The 5 Most Germ-Ridden Public Places

One of the biggest dangers you’ll face this winter will probably be the germs (a.k.a. microorganisms or microbes) that lurk in public places. Becoming more aware of where these microbes live can help you to avoid getting sick.

The Real Dangers to Your Health

"If any good can come from the Ebola epidemic, it's the heightened awareness of germs as dangerous pathogens [disease-producing agents]," says Joel Blass, MD, Medical Director at Cassena Care, a healthcare entity with locations throughout the New York metro area. But while the odds of getting Ebola in the United States is actually extremely slim, Blass points out there’s a very real risk of getting the flu and other illnesses every time you’re in a large crowd or public place.

Bass and some of his colleagues from around the country weighed in on the germiest public places. Here are some of their top picks:

1. Public Transportation

Traveling by public transportation is good for the environment and can help you save money on gas. But when you step on a bus, subway, train, or airplane, you’re entering a melting pot of germs. The most troublesome spots for microbes include armrests, meal trays, poles, hand straps, and luggage racks. The types of germs you can typically find in these places include influenza (the flu), MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria that leads to skin infections) and C. Diff (a.k.a. clostridium difficile, a bacteria that affects the intestinal tract and causes diarrhea), to name just a few, according to Brian Stephens, MD, the founder of Little Black Bag Medical in Jacksonville, Florida. In addition, as subway cars move, they spray microbes into the air, increasing commuters’ risk of breathing in viruses, bacteria, and fungi.

What to Do: Avoid touching common surfaces with your bare hands, steer clear of passengers who are coughing and sneezing, breathe shallowly if you are near others who could be ill so as to minimize the transmission of germs, and wash your hands with soap and water as soon as you disembark. For effective cleaning, follow the CDC’s guidelines and wet your hands before lathering up with soap and then washing your hands—including the backs of the hands and under the nails—for at least 20 seconds before rinsing and drying off. Hand sanitizer, which will reduce the number of germs you encounter, can be a good alternative if you don’t have immediate access to a sink.

2. The Grocery Store

That shopping cart handle can be loaded with traces of saliva, bacteria, and even fecal matter. But the germ fest doesn’t stop there: More danger awaits in the produce aisle, where the ready-to-serve salad mixes, produce, and fruits can contain parasites, bacteria (including salmonella and E. coli), and viruses that occurred either during the growing or food handling processes, explains Aileen M. Marty MD, FACP, Professor of Infectious Diseases at Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at Florida International University in Miami.

What to Do: Use antibacterial wipes to clean the cart handle before you touch, or use your own handle cover. And when you get home, "Clean your vegetables and fruits [including pre-washed salad mixes and produce], even if they say 'ready-to-eat,'" Marty advises.

3. Restrooms

It should come as no surprise that public restrooms are crawling with a variety of germs. In fact, "The germiest places in the work area and any public areas are restroom faucet handles and doorknobs," says Blass. "Studies have shown E. coli bacteria on all these surfaces." The toilet seats can also be ripe with pieces of fecal matter.

What to Do: "To minimize exposure, after washing and drying your hands, use the paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door," Blass says. You can also use toilet seat covers or hover rather than touching your skin to the seat surface.

4. Restaurant Condiments

What you don’t see can hurt you when you head out to eat. The ketchup and mustard bottles and salt and pepper shakers in restaurants can be teeming with germs and bacteria—particularly the cold virus, says Meena Chintapalli, MD, a pediatrician in San Antonio. These items are touched by many patrons and are not often wiped down with a disinfectant (which destroys bacteria and fungi). This means that when you touch the containers, you could be picking up any germs left by other diners.

Clean the bottles yourself, either with your own napkin or with some disinfectant wipes if you carry them with you. If you can’t clean the items, at least hold them with a napkin so that you don’t touch the surface with your bare skin. This can reduce the transmission of bacteria and allow you to enjoy your meal without worrying about getting sick from the experience.

5. ATMs

You can bet your bottom dollar that your local automatic teller machine is rich with an array of germs that can cause gastrointestinal issues, colds, and flus. While you may not be able to avoid the cash-dispensing machine entirely, you can at least take care to leave the germs behind when you do your banking.

What to Do: Wear gloves to touch the keypad, or make sure to carefully wash your hands after your transaction. "Hand washing is the number one most effective method of preventing germ transmission," says Kiki Hurt, MD, triple board certified physician who resides in Chicago and Los Angeles and practices anesthesiology, critical care, and internal medicine. If you can’t wash you hands promptly, use a hand sanitizer. Also be sure to avoid touching your mouth or nose after touching the ATM, since this can increase your odds of getting ill.

Closer to Home

If the thought of all of these germs has you feeling squeamish and you’re tempted to hide out at home till the spring, you probably won’t be pleased to know that your house is not a haven from the microbe danger. In fact, a study released at the end of 2014 from NSF International (a global organization that certifies the safety of food and products) and Clorox shows that germs are abundant in residential kitchens and bathrooms. They frequently linger on countertops, sinks, doorknobs, and faucet handles, among other places. Here’s how to fight germs at home:

  • Attack problem areas. "Make sure to identify and disinfect germ hot spots in your home to prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria. You should use an EPA-registered disinfectant [a surface cleaner the Environmental Protection Agency has determined is 'effective against the most common emerging pathogens'] to kill germs that can live on surfaces for several hours," says Tanya Altmann, MD, Pediatrician and Assistant Clinical Professor at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA.
  • Care for your skin. Taking care of your skin can also be a helpful—and healthful—step. "The skin is the first line of defense against bacteria, fungi and viruses. When the skin is excessively stressed (too much wetness, heat, cold, dryness, etc.) it can become more at risk for infection and compromised in its integrity. For example, excessive dryness can ruin the lipid [fat] layer around the outer skin that protects us from the outside environment," notes Tanya Kormeili, MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor at UCLA. To prevent excessive dryness, "Use natural moisturizers often, and keep from excessive cold by wearing protective clothing," she says.
  • Protect your immune system. Finally, in addition to getting your annual flu shot, you can’t go wrong by giving your immune system a boost, according to Hurt: “We know it, but often don't remember until it's too late. So stock up on the vitamin C, zinc, and even garlic. These supplements have shown to effectively strengthen the immune system and keep those colds at bay," she advises.

Tanya Altmann, MD; Joel Blass, MD; Meena Chintapalli, MD; Kiki Hurt, MD; Tanya Kormeili, MD; Aileen Marty, MD, and Brian Stephens, MD, reviewed this article.


Altmann, Tanya, MD. Pediatrician and assistant clinical professor, Mattel Children’s Hospital. Email interview. December 19, 2014.

Blass, Joel, MD. Medical Director at Cassena Care. Email interview. December 19, 2014.

Chintapalli, Meena, MD. Email interview. December 19, 2014.

Hurt, Kiki, MD. Email interview. December 19, 2014.

Kormeili, Tanya, MD, FAAD. Board Certified Dermatologist and Clinical Instructor, UCLA. Email interview. December 19, 2014.

Marty, Aileen M, MD, FACP. Professor, Infectious Diseases. Department of Medicine, Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, Florida International University. Email interview. December 19, 2014.

Stephens, Brian, MD. Founder, Little Black Bag Medical, Jacksonville, Florida.

"Wash Your Hands." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Page last updated December 11, 2013.

"Selected EPA-Registered Disinfectants." US Environmental Protection Agency. Page last updated October 31, 2014.

"Antimicrobial Pesticide Products." US Environmental Protection Agency. Page last updated July 30, 2014.

Altmann, Tanya. "Stop Germs in their Tracks This Cold and Flu Season." 30, 2014. Accessed online.