Clutter, Dirt, and Bacteria: Oh My!

Our house is a mess. Two working parents, two small children, and two cats pretty much guarantee the place is consistently gross. This doesn’t bother me much, though Hubby and I marvel at the grossness sometimes. I wrote about this on the mothersinmedicine blog, complete with color photos of our grimy bathroom. The feedback was reassuring: one doc admitted to walking by dead roaches on her floor day after day because she just couldn’t deal. Love it!

Another doc had wonderful advice:

I am highly tolerant of messes too, by necessity. It comes down to making choices… Are you going to spend the very little time you have, the precious irreplaceable time, with your kids baking, or making sure everything is neat? My five and three year old girls remember the projects we have done. They have yet to tell me- ‘mommy you were so good to wipe the handle after I messed it all up with paint’…. I think you have your priorities straight. Be proud of yourself.

Yes, we love to cook, and we make HUGE messes. Yes, our place is cluttered and grimy, but I’m not worried about it. After eleven years of clinical training, including three in an infectious disease clinic, my cleanliness philosophy is: “Who cares? We’ll all be fine. Just wash your hands before you put them near your face.”

And a recent article in the New York Times titled “I’m a Doctor. If I Drop Food on the Kitchen Floor, I Still Eat It” backs me up on this, with good data. The author, a professor of pediatrics and a science writer, describes that the things that carry the most and worst bacteria are not the things that we usually worry about. Data shows that things like cell phones, money, ATM machines, gas pumps, remote controls, and light switches are pretty disgusting. Dirtier than most toilet seats, in fact, in terms of numbers of nasty bacteria.

But most of us will hand our contaminated dollars to the very nice young person at the register of our favorite takeout place, accept a handful of frankly infested coins as change, jam it into our colonized purse, and then use our filthy, unwashed hands to eat that food, without thinking twice.

What’s his take on it, as a physician? Besides recommending the very effective and simple act of handwashing, he says:

People react to news like this in one of two ways. One is to become paranoid about everything. Such people start to clean compulsively, worry about all the things they’re touching, and use hand sanitizer obsessively.

The alternative is to realize that for most of us, our immune systems are pretty hardy. We’ve all been touching this dirty stuff for a long time, without knowing it, and doing just fine.

That’s right. Clutter, dirt, bacteria: Who cares? We’ll all be fine.

Just wash your hands before you put them near your face.

2 thoughts on “Clutter, Dirt, and Bacteria: Oh My!”

  • I am very good about washing and sanitizing my hands when I’m seeing patients. I follow all the infection control procedures (well, mostly – I hate those danged gowns for isolation patients). At home we don’t have hand sanitizer in the house and I never use it. We have cleaners because my husband is allergic to dust, so he can’t do the indoor cleaning, and I know I won’t keep the house clean enough to keep him from getting sick. I try not to look at the inside of our refrigerator, and I’m still finding dog hair in corners and under furniture 18 months after the dog died. My kid misses two or three days a year from colds. I think we’re doing OK.

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