Several years ago while sitting in a management team meeting, I was suddenly stricken with symptoms of a particularly hideous strain of an outbreak of norovirus that had been spreading through the hospital where I worked. Because those infected with a norovirus illness shed billions of the dreaded virus particles in their stool and vomit, the hospital protocol during this outbreak was to immediately call in a specially-trained housekeeping team wearing what looked like Hazmat suits to scrub down the staff washroom I’d just used. Even the calendar and paper posters pinned up on the washroom’s little bulletin board were removed and destroyed.
Until then, I thought I was the only one who felt creeped out by touching paper in any public waiting room. These rooms – particularly in hospitals and doctors’ offices – are jam-packed with sick people, people! At the best of times, I don’t like sitting in a patient waiting room, never mind voluntarily picking up any reading material while I’m there. Even people who are not coughing, hacking, snorting, sneezing or wiping dripping mucous from their inflamed noses with unwashed bare fingers can still be transmitting bacteria and viruses onto every page of those waiting room magazines.
According to Dr. James Steckelberg, a Mayo Clinic internist:
“Depending partly on where germ-laden droplets fall, experiments with specific cold and flu germs have shown potential survival times ranging from a few minutes to 48 hours or more.
“It’s easy to catch the flu or a cold from rubbing your nose after handling an object that an infected person sneezed on a few moments ago.”
Since some microorganisms like bacteria or viruses can survive for hours on surfaces you touch (like those magazines), there’s a surprisingly good chance those bugs can get passed on to you. Viruses can live up to 48 hours on hard, non-porous surfaces such as stainless steel, and for up to 12 hours on soft surfaces like cloth and tissues.
Although a virus survives for only minutes on your hands once you touch those surfaces with your fingers, that’s still plenty of time for you to transfer it to your mouth, nose, or eyes.
So how contaminated are those waiting room magazines?
In one Norwegian study*, the front pages of glossy, popular magazines were collected from the waiting rooms of 11 general practice surgeries and investigated for bacterial contamination. Magazines were collected towards the end of the surgery day, and from the top of horizontal piles in an effort to select those most likely to be contaminated with viable bacteria. The age of the magazines ranged from 2-9 months at the time of collection. (Doctors please note: If you still have 9-month old magazines lying around in your waiting room, it’s well past time to toss them into the recycling bin. But you might want to don gloves to do so . . .)
This study’s results were definitely cringe-worthy. All magazine surfaces were contaminated with bacteria, including colonies of Staphylococcus aureus (a common cause of skin infections like boils and respiratory diseases like sinusitis).
As Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology spokeswoman Pat Rosenbaum RN warned:
“These are the same kind of things you could pick up in any general public area, especially if you’re not following good precautionary measures like hand washing. They are all around us, particularly in places in highly populated areas like waiting rooms, buses, and trains.”
Another study in 2007 found that when objects in a hotel room – light switches, telephones, etc. – were contaminated with a cold virus, 60 percent of healthy volunteers picked up the virus when they touched one of the objects one hour later. Eighteen hours later, that transmission rate was cut in half.**
As Pat Rosenbaum adds:
“We cannot keep everything clean, but what we can do is keep our hands clean.
“The most important thing to remember for children, adults – anyone – it’s touching something and bringing your hand back to your face, like rubbing your eyes or face, or putting your hands in your mouth.
“The less you touch, the better. As long as you clean your hands before you touch your face, you’re doing a good deed in preventing virus transmission.”
And a final warning if your doctor’s office also has a toybox in the corner of the waiting room. As the British Journal of General Practice reported:
“Toys provided for children in the waiting rooms of general practice surgeries, pediatric wards, and intensive care units have been previously investigated for microbial contamination. These studies concluded that toys can be contaminated with potentially pathogenic bacteria including coliforms, Clostridium perfringens, and Staphylococcus aureus.”
The way to reduce the creepiness factor and stay healthy is simple: bring your own reading material to your medical appointments, and bring your own toys if you’ll have children with you.
P.S. Here’s the difference between bacterial and viral infections, as explained by Mayo Clinic:
“Bacteria are small single-celled microorganisms that thrive in many different types of environments from extremes of cold or heat to our intestines where they help digest food. Most bacteria cause no harm to people. Infections caused by bacteria include strep throat, tuberculosis and urinary tract infections.
“Viruses are even smaller than bacteria and require living hosts – such as people, plants or animals – to multiply, otherwise, they can’t survive. When a virus enters your body, it invades some of your cells and takes over the cell machinery, redirecting it to produce the virus. Diseases that result from viruses include chickenpox, AIDS and the common cold.
“Many ailments – such as pneumonia, meningitis and diarrhea – can be caused by either type of microbe. But antibiotic drugs can kill bacteria, but they are NOT effective against viruses.”
Q: Are you okay with picking up magazines in patient waiting rooms?
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- Germ warfare for heart patients during flu season
- Why are hospital staff wearing uniforms, scrubs and white coats in public?
* Charnock et al. Br J Gen Pract. 2005 January 1; 55(510): 37–39. PMCID: PMC1266241
** Winther B et al. Journal of Medical Virology. 2007 Oct; 79(10):1606-10. PMID:17705174