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Easy measures can keep fear of germs from becoming toxic

March 07, 2004|Kathleen Doheny | Healthy Traveler

Some people have a healthy fear of germs, and then there are the neurotics for whom every doorknob, airplane pillow and hotel towel poses a health hazard.

Here's a reality check on some common concerns:

•  Restroom doorknobs: Some travelers are adamant about not touching a restroom door or doorknob when they leave, anxious that others have not washed their hands.

That's not as neurotic as some might think, says Dr. Peter Galier, chief of staff at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center.

"Many bacteria, and especially many viruses, can live for quite a while on surfaces," he says. "They can survive for hours or even days. And the more moist the surface is, the longer they can."

Chances are that the traveler before you didn't wash his hands, says Dr. David Dassey, deputy chief of acute communicable disease control for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. A study in the April 2003 American Journal of Infection Control showed that 37 of 100 female college students didn't wash their hands after using the restroom.

The danger, of course, is that dirty hands can leave bacteria, and if you touch a dirty surface with your hands and then wipe your nose or eyes, you may infect yourself, Galier says.

He and Dassey agree that opening doors with a paper towel may ward off colds and other infections.

•  Toilet seats: Though some public toilets look disgusting, it's "kind of hard to catch anything," Galier says.

For the unconvinced, there are devices such as Uri-Mate, a disposable funnel for women. A package of eight sells for $6.85 from Magellan's, (800) 962-4943, . The WC Toilet Set, $5.95 from Magellan's, has 10 seat covers, 12 tissues and a pre-moistened towelette.

•  Airplane pillows and blankets: Catching a bug is unlikely, Galier says, unless a previous user had a runny nose or sneezed into the pillow. Even then, you probably would have to use the pillow within several hours to become infected.

Still wary? Options include the Pocket Pillow, a flannel case that can be stuffed with extra clothes and used as a pillow, or folded up to pocket size when not in use. It's $8 at Distant Lands travel store in Pasadena, (800) 310-3220, .

•  The hotel towel: "If it's been laundered, even if it's still stained, there's not much you can catch," Galier says. Skeptical travelers can try Aquis towels, made of a microfiber that will be dry by packing time. At Distant Lands, prices for the towel range from $8 to $28 depending on the size.

The best defense against germs, however, doesn't cost a thing.

"Hand washing is the best way you can stay healthy," Galier says.

He also suggests waterless hand sanitizers, available in drugstores. A pocket-size packet costs less than $1.

What if you are not fanatical about germs but are traveling with someone who is? Take along a little perspective, suggests Elaine Rodino, a clinical psychologist in Santa Monica who objects to the term "germ-phobe."

"We are not really talking about phobias, which are irrational fears," she says, adding that fears about germs are rational but sometimes are taken to an extreme level.

"If you are traveling with someone who chooses to open the doorknobs with a tissue or bring their own sleeve for the airline pillow," she says, "let the person have his little peculiarities."

Healthy Traveler appears every other week. Kathleen Doheny can be reached at kathleen

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