It’s 8 p.m., and you’re all snug in your room—the kids are rolling on the carpet, gumming the remote, trying to knock each other out with pillows. What’s wrong with this picture?According to a number of new germ studies, plenty. No matter how nice the establishment, chances are that some invisible guests have dodged the housekeeper. We turned to medical specialists for the lowdown, plus some easy prescriptions for peace of mind.
Expert Opinion E. coli and other fecal-based bacteria can make you really sick, and according to Dr. Charles Gerba (a.k.a. Dr. Germ), a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, they’re not lurking only in the obvious places. The bathroom sink is a prime breeding ground, thanks to constant moisture and heat, and the dirty hands that touch the taps and spout. Those foul fingers also handle light switches and doorknobs, and only the most vigilant cleaning staff would think of tackling them.
Prescription Bring your own disinfecting wipes (by Clorox or Lysol, for example) and use them on the phone, TV remote, switches, handles, and sink. But your family’s best defense against belly gripes is regular hand-washing. On the fly, use a hand sanitizer, such as Purell; just make sure it has an alcohol content of at least 60 percent.
Expert Opinion If the last person to stay in your room was sick, he or she may have left baggage behind, says Dr. J. Owen Hendley, professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia, who co-authored a 2006 study on rhinoviruses. These germs (the cause of half of all colds) can live on hard surfaces for a day and are easily transferred from the remote, bedside lamp, or hotel pen to your fingers, then your nose or eyes.
Prescription Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. No fancy antibacterial soap needed: the regular stuff works just fine. To be extra safe, give the room a once-over with disinfecting wipes.
Expert Opinion As long as the linens are changed and the room is vacuumed, these critters typically won’t be crawling, says Deborah Altschuler, president of the National Pediculosis Association. Lice are parasites; they have little reason to leave a warm head for a cold bed. Still, they might be clinging to items that aren’t cleaned for each new guest.
Prescription Don’t snuggle up with throw pillows or bedspreads, which don’t get washed as often as the sheets. If you feel itchy, check your head immediately. Early detection is the key to preventing a family outbreak. For treatment, see headliceadvice.net.
Expert Opinion All but eradicated in the U.S. after World War II, these bloodsuckers have scurried back into every state—and into expensive and budget hotels alike, according to Louis N. Sorkin, an entomologist at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. And don’t assume beds are the only places they hang out: the bugs also creep into cracks and crevices in headboards, floorboards, carpets, picture frames, and furniture.
Prescription Before booking, check Web sites like bedbug registry.com or traveladvisor.com for hotel-infestation alerts. Upon arrival, inspect the bed (especially the mattress seams) for the insects and their blood and excrement (small red or brown dots). A flashlight will help you find these elusive pests, which, when engorged, grow to the size of an apple seed. Spot anything suspicious?Check out—before they check you out.
Expert Opinion Dr. Sandra M. Gawchik, an allergist at Crozer Chester Medical Center in Chester, Pennsylvania, says that allergy- and asthma-triggering dust mites reproduce so rapidly that regular laundering and vacuuming can’t stave them off. Still, these cloth- and carpet-lovers bother only those who are allergic—causing sneezing, stuffiness, and itchy eyes.
Prescription For family members with dust-mite sensitivity, strip beds of spreads and throw pillows, and use dustproof pillowcases brought from home. Or ask for a freshly laundered case and stuff it with clean towels. Beyond that, relax—after all, there are plenty of dust mites in your own home.
Expert Opinion A pet-friendly hotel is the doghouse for allergy and asthma sufferers. According to Dr. Gawchik, standard cleaning won’t eliminate the sticky dander pets shed: it attaches to all surfaces in every room they pass through.
Prescription If animal dander bothers you, steer clear of hotels that accept furry guests.
Expert Opinion Dr. Arnold S. Ravick, of the American Podiatric Medical Association, says that this fungal infection is often contracted in hotel rooms. Luckily, most of us won’t catch the itch—our immune systems fight it off.
Prescription Wear socks or slippers around the room, and flip-flops in the shower, although the spores can still splash onto your feet. Your best bet is to swab the bathroom floor and tub with disinfecting wipes when you arrive, then rinse thoroughly. For extra protection, keep your feet dry and spray them with an antifungal medicine (Desenex and Neosporin AF are safe for kids over two).
Expert Opinion Tubs with jets may be fun for kids, but according to Dr. Rita Moyes, a microbiologist at Texas A&M University, they’re also a potential source of diseases. In Moyes’s 2000 study, 100 percent of water samples taken from whirlpool tubs tested positive for agents that can cause rashes, urinary-tract infections, or pneumonia. The pipes of the whirlpool—rather than the tub itself—are where the nasties hide.
Prescription You can get away with bathing in a regular tub—especially if you swab it with a disinfectant wipe, paying attention to the drain, where the most bacteria amass—but steer clear of a jetted one, which requires (but likely doesn’t get) regular flushings of bleach through the pipes, followed by thorough rinsing. Best bet: Stick with the shower.