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Don't Let Germs Hitch a Ride Home From Your Doctor's Office

Armen Hareyan's picture

These days, antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis and staph are making headlines, while this year's flu shot is uncertain protection against this year's flu strain.

Germ phobia is in the air, and some patients are wondering if medical visits could make them sicker instead of healthier. Others are worried about what they'll pick up in the waiting room or on the examining table.

Of course, people have been going to doctors' offices for at least a century without worrying too much about germs. But if you're still concerned you can reduce your family's risk by taking a few simple precautions.

Start by speaking up to health care providers. Experts say it's not rude to insist on clean hands and sanitary office equipment -- it's essential.

"The single most important thing a patient can do is ask everyone who is going to be treating you to clean their hands," says Betsy McCaughey, founder of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths. "Ask that they do it in front of you. Don't be misled by gloves; gloves are no assurance at all."

When kids are the patients the precautions may need to begin in the reception area. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "An office waiting room often presents opportunities for transmission of infectious diseases among patients."

At the pediatrician's office many moms and dads dread a room full of sneezing kids in the height of flu season and try to keep their toddlers away from much-handled community toys.

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"Bring along a children's book," McCaughey suggests. "Bring an alcohol-based (waterless) hand cleanser, too. Don't worry about looking obsessed -- other parents will catch on."

She advises parents to be especially careful if a child has a scraped knee "or another gateway for infection. "If your kid has a wound -- keep him or her on your lap and cover the wound; have them wear long pants."

Some medical offices have "sick child" and "well child" waiting rooms. But while dual waiting rooms may appease worried parents, they don't work, says Dr. Steven Hirsch, a pediatrician in solo practice in Rockville, Md.

"It's an imperfect system; ideally, though you would want to separate out children with contagious infections such as a common cold or stomach virus from those who are not contagious, it's too difficult to figure out," Hirsch says. "A lot of children there for well visits actually have contagious viruses -- or their siblings do."

Sneezing and coughing aren't the biggest problem, Hirsch says: "The flu virus is not spread by aerosolized particles floating in the air. Transmission usually occurs when you come in direct contact with a droplet."

This can happen when a sick person touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth then touches an inanimate object such as a doorknob or elevator button. That living germ gets transferred to the inanimate object. If you touch the same object soon afterward, then touch your child's eyes, nose or mouth, that virus gets transmitted into her body, Hirsch says.

So instead of shared toys, Hirsch's staff provides individual buckets of toys for each child to play with during their visit. At day's end, staff members wipe down the toys and let them dry overnight, long enough for most germs to die.

Inside the exam room, Hirsch says that fresh, unwrinkled paper on the table is a tangible -- but inadequate -- proof of a sanitary space. "You rip the used paper off after each patient and people see the clean, crisp paper and are reassured that the office is clean," he says.

But that's not good enough, he adds. "After every patient, it only takes a short period of time with an antibacterial wipe for me, or a staff member, to clean the examining table, door knobs, chair railings and counter tops