Steering clear of someone with a stomach bug doesn't mean you can't catch it. Norovirus, the bug responsible for the stomach flu, can be spread by inanimate objects, namely, reusable grocery bags, according to a new study.
Oregon researchers investigated a recent outbreak of the bug among 17 members of a girls' soccer team and their four adult chaperones while attending a tournament in Washington state. One member of the team, presumably exposed to the virus before the tournament, began vomiting and experiencing diarrhea in a chaperone's bathroom, who quickly took her home and later became sick herself.
Seven other players and chaperones fell ill afterwards, although none had come in direct contact with the original patient after she first displayed symptoms. The common link? A reusable grocery bag of snacks that had been stored in the bathroom, according to the study, published today in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.
Kimberly K. Repp, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at Oregon Health and Sciences University, told WebMD that, via an 800-question survey administered to the girls and their chaperones, she and colleague William E. Keene, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the Oregon Public Health Division in Portland, discovered that all of the sick people had eaten the same cookies. "It was something about the cookies, we knew, that was associated with the source of the outbreak," Repp said.
So how did the highly-contagious bug get to the cookies? Particles from vomit and feces can become airborne, land on bags or other inanimate objects and survive there for weeks, NPR explained, which is likely how it recently wreaked havoc on cruise ships and even infiltrated NBA locker rooms.
While researchers have long assumed this to be true, the small study is "the first-ever reported case of transmitting this virus with an inanimate object," Repp told WebMD.
There's no doubt they are a more eco-friendly choice than plastic, but reusable grocery bags have a shaky health history. In 2010, a study found that over half are contaminated with bacteria, some even with E. coli, because 97 percent of shoppers say they never wash their totes.
Throwing away any food that has been around someone with the norovirus is an important step toward staying healthy, but properly cleaning the environment is crucial, too. "While we certainly recommend not storing food in bathrooms," the authors noted in a statement, "it is more important to emphasize that areas where aerosol exposures may have occurred should be thoroughly disinfected; this includes not only exposed surfaces, but also objects in the environment."
To do so, wash reusable bags like you would sheets and towels, CNN reports. Warm water works, as does a mild bleach and water mixture. Make sure to clean counters and cabinets where you place or store the bags, too.
And don't forget about some of the other sneaky places germs can be lurking. Check out the slideshow below for more germ traps to clean today.
Switching from plastic to a BPA-free, reusable bottle is smart for your wallet and the planet. But as fantastic as we think reusable water bottles are, they aren't invincible to bacteria and fungi. The damp enclosed space is a <a href="http://www.menshealth.com/mhlists/fight_household_germs/water_bottle_germs.php" target="_hplink">perfect breeding ground for germs</a>, so it's a good idea to <a href="http://www.self.com/health/blogs/healthyself/2011/08/how-to-clean-a-dirty-water-bot.html" target="_hplink">wash your bottle every day</a>. Hot water and soap are strong enough to do the trick, but for tall bottles or ones with slimmer openings, <a href="http://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/cleaning-your-reusable-water-bottle" target="_hplink">consider trying a bottle brush</a>. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/5091713405/" target="_hplink">Alan Levine</a></em>
Don't leave your warm, damp mat in its bag after class -- it'll <a href="http://www.fitsugar.com/How-Keep-Yoga-Mat-Clean-21456804" target="_hplink">encourage bacterial growth</a>. Instead, drape it over a door or banister and let it dry completely before your next sweat session. Be sure to wipe it down regularly as well, with a solution of one cup of warm water and two drops of dish soap, recommends FitSugar. And keep your mat to yourself! Communal mats that aren't cleaned properly could be linked to the <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/27/fashion/27Fitness.html?pagewanted=all" target="_hplink">spread of unpleasant gym-related troubles</a> like jock itch and athlete's foot, according to the <em>New York Times</em>. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/lululemonathletica/4425366955/" target="_hplink">lululemon athletica</a></em>
A 2010 study found that more than half of eco-friendly reusable totes are contaminated with bacteria, possibly even E. coli -- not something we want getting cozy with our groceries. The reason? A whopping 97 percent of shoppers interviewed said they <a href="http://uanews.org/pdfs/GerbaWilliamsSinclair_BagContamination.pdf" target="_hplink">never wash the bags</a>, the study found. While we're probably not at risk of any <a href="http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2010/06/25/128105740/plastics-industry-funded-study-finds-bacteria-in-reusable-grocery-bags" target="_hplink">shopping-related outbreaks</a>, it certainly wouldn't hurt to throw the bags in the wash regularly. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/neeta_lind/2191904258/" target="_hplink">Neeta Lind</a></em>
You don't leave home without it -- which means it's going everywhere you go and picking up germs along the way. Microbiologist Chuck Gerba, who researches the sneaky places germs hide, told ABC in 2006: <blockquote>"We found fecal bacteria you normally find on the floor of restroom. We found bacteria that can cause skin infections on the bottom of purses. What's more amazing is the large numbers we find on the bottom of purses, which indicates that they can be picking up a lot of other germs like <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/OnCall/story?id=2283311&page=1#.T2yVH-zLyK4" target="_hplink">cold viruses or viruses that cause diarrhea</a>."</blockquote> Many of the women in Gerba's research argued that they don't touch the bottom of their purses, so they weren't concerned about the spread of germs, but it's easy to unknowingly transfer germs, he said, including to areas of food preparation. And because money is constantly changing hands, your wallet as well can play host to numerous germs that you then transfer to other belongings. Dr. Oz offered some cleaning tips in a 2009 episode of "Good Morning America", including <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/BeautySecrets/dr-oz-explains-germs-off-purse-make/story?id=8543211#.T2yVIuzLyK4" target="_hplink">wiping down the contents of your purse</a> with antibacterial wipes and leaving your purse at your door instead of bringing it and its germy freeloaders further into your home.
Even though you may feel like keeping your favorite tube of lipstick forever, makeup can both spoil and harbor germs, bacteria and mold that spread icky infections and cause breakouts. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/17/makeup-germs_n_1283034.html" target="_hplink">Find out how long your makeup lasts here</a>, then use spring cleaning as an excuse to go through your stash. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/ummella/4943967868/" target="_hplink">Vivianna_love</a></em>
Like purses, you probably put your gym bag down in some pretty germy places. Not to mention, you put damp, warm gym clothes <em>inside</em> the bag, and might not take them out in a timely manner. Instead, <a href="http://www.health.com/health/article/0,,20410993,00.html" target="_hplink">regularly empty your entire bag and air it out</a>, suggests Health.com. Wash it in hot water every week, or at the very least give it a rub down with disinfecting wipes. And commit to taking those sweaty clothes out as soon as you get home. Even if you can't wash them right away, at least let them dry out so germs won't take root.
Studies have shown that some pretty <a href="http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/healthy-teeth-2/the-ugly-truth-about-your-toothbrush" target="_hplink">nasty bacteria like to make your toothbrush their home</a> -- but they aren't likely to make you sick, according to the American Dental Association. Still, it's a good idea to rinse off your brush after scrubbing your pearly whites so no debris or toothpaste lingers, and don't store your brush in a closed container, which can promote the growth of bacteria. The ADA recommends <a href="http://www.ada.org/1887.aspx" target="_hplink">replacing toothbrushes every three to four months</a>, so if it's been a while, swap yours out now. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimwinstead/91836729/" target="_hplink">jimw</a></em>
Public health and safety firm NSF International found that 72 percent of sponges and dishrags were contaminated with bacteria that can cause food poisoning, making them the <a href="http://www.nsf.org/consumer/newsroom/pdf/0611_germs_hide.pdf" target="_hplink">germiest thing in your house</a>. Allowing the sponge to dry between uses will help -- so don't leave it in the sink when you're not washing dishes -- as will <a href="http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/germs-in-kitchen" target="_hplink">zapping it in the microwave</a> for a minute or two. <em>Fitness</em> recommends <a href="http://features.fitnessmagazine.com/12ThingsYouShouldKnowAboutGermandBacteriaHotSpots.html" target="_hplink">replacing your sponges once every three weeks</a>. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/blmurch/336000454/" target="_hplink">Beatrice Murch</a></em>
The soapy gunk that gathers on vinyl <a href="http://aem.asm.org/content/70/7/4187.full" target="_hplink">shower curtains can actually cause infections</a>, according to a 2004 study, and taking a shower can send those <a href="http://www.menshealth.com/mhlists/eliminating_germs/Surprising_Germ_Hotspot__1.php" target="_hplink">germs flying into the air</a>, <em>Men's Health</em> reported. While you're spring cleaning the bathroom, swap out your vinyl curtain for a fabric one -- it won't be any more resistant to growth, but you can clean it more easily, by tossing it into the washer with the hottest water the material can stand. Once a month should do the trick. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/nieve44/3145782846/" target="_hplink">Nieve44/Luz</a></em>
A 2007 study found that 34 percent of contact cases were crawling with germs that could lead to eye disease. Rinse the case <a href="http://www.menshealth.com/mhlists/eliminating_germs/Surprising_Germ_Hotspot_2.php" target="_hplink">every day in hot water</a>, recommends <em>Men's Health</em>, and replace your solution every two months, when it loses some of its germ-fighting powers. Replace the case <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/vision-center/lenses-and-beyond/keeping-an-eye-on-contact-lenses.aspx" target="_hplink">every two to three months</a>, reports Everyday Health. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/lenore-m/3172546365/" target="_hplink">L. Marie</a></em>
Last year, a study that found <a href="http://healthland.time.com/2011/10/17/study-1-in-6-cell-phones-contaminated-with-fecal-matter/" target="_hplink">fecal matter on one in six cell phones</a> grossed out readers worldwide. You don't want to spray anything directly on your gadgets, for fear of damaging them. Instead, <a href="http://news.menshealth.com/the-filthiest-gadget-you-never-clean/2011/10/20/" target="_hplink">wipe down your phone</a> with a disinfecting wipe or solution on a paper towel. While you're at it, give your desk phone or home landline a swipe as well. <em>Flickr photo <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/prosto/416542784/" target="_hplink">prosto photos</a></em>