The big E. coli scare isn't over yet...
Last month, we saw the spread of a strain of E. coli that contaminated romaine lettuce. Nearly 200 people fell ill and about half wound up in the hospital. Five folks died from the bacterial infection.
And although the romaine from the affected region isn't in stores anymore, people are still worried about this nasty bug.
That's why a new study about E. coli made headlines recently. They're after more than our salads now. But don't believe all the hype...
Earlier this week, the American Society for Microbiology held its annual conference. One of the presentations focused on another vector for spreading the dangerous bug... kitchen towels.
The study, which hasn't published yet, focused on 100 households. The researchers distributed towels and instructed folks to use them for a one-month period, washing as often as they saw fit. They found that 14% had Staphylococcus aureus, a nasty bug responsible for food poisoning. And 6% had E. coli.
Here's the thing… We have both S. aureus and even some E. coli on and in our bodies all the time. Most folks don't get sick or have any problems. In fact, you likely even have some MRSA living in your nose.
So don't burn your towels just yet.
The real takeaway here is that less stringent hygiene in the kitchen does mean we're creating breeding grounds for these bugs. And sometimes the nastier strains can contaminate our food and make us ill.
The worst groups at risk are those 65 and older. That's because our immune systems start to decline as we age, meaning we have a harder time fighting off bacteria. Even if we don't get sick enough to go to the doctor, food poisoning does still happen.
About one in six Americans will get food poisoning this year. More virulent strains of S. aureus and E. coli are two of the biggest culprits. So taking some basic steps to cut down on these germs will help keep you and your family safe.
A number of factors come into play here. First is diet. Meat-eaters often had more E. coli on their towels. But vegetarians had another pathogen called Enterococcus on their towels. It usually lives on produce. So, a good tip is to wash and dry produce, but use a separate towel for dishes and your hands.
Similarly, don't wipe down your counter and then use that towel on hands or clean dishes later. When in doubt, change your towels.
And be sure to wash your towels in hot water regularly. Once a week does the trick, though you might want to wash more often if you have young children or older folks in the home. That's because kids often spread more germs. And as we said earlier, older folks have weaker immune systems and get sick more easily than other adults.
What researchers also discovered was that towels often didn't dry thoroughly between uses. That makes them perfect breeding grounds for bacteria.
If that sounds familiar, it's because we reported on a similar study last year. That one pointed out the dangers in our sponges...
A German study found that the dirtiest place in your house is your kitchen sponge. The team even went so far as to say your sponge is likely dirtier than your toilet.
The average kitchen sponge in the study contained about 10 different types of bacteria. That's not surprising since bacteria are everywhere, and most are harmless. But five of the 10 strains were in a higher risk group, meaning they could cause illnesses.
And if you think just microwaving your sponge to sanitize it works, think again. Folks in the study who did this had sponges with the same level of bacteria as the unclean ones. Worse – and far more worrisome – the nuked sponges had more resistant bacteria as a result.
Do what I do... Rinse your sponge thoroughly after using and stand it vertically to facilitate drying. I also alternate my sponges so that they dry out between uses, making it hard for bacteria to survive as well. I replace them every few weeks and clean them once a week in a 50/50 lemon juice and vinegar bath in the microwave. The acid in the lemon and vinegar helps to kill most any bug the radiation doesn't.
Don't bleach your entire kitchen just yet. Remember, studies like this find bacteria in scary places, but there are bacteria everywhere. And some exposure is actually beneficial. There's even research that not enough exposure wrecks our immune systems and causes allergies, too.
So try to practice proper hygiene, but don't go overboard. Regular cleaning and allowing towels and sponges to dry thoroughly between uses is all you need to keep sickness at bay.
- Something different: Is it time to revisit this classic tale?
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
June 21, 2018