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How to Flu-Proof Your Home

How to Flu-Proof Your Home

As health officials warn that this year's flu outbreak could be one of the worst in years, it's important to find ways to keep winter's ever-present illness at bay.

But dealing with the virus that causes the flu can be tricky. Health officials recommend getting a yearly flu vaccine, and they urge everyone to protect themselves with one time-honored tactic: wash your hands, well and often. That may be the single best way to stop the disease in its tracks.

READ: 10 Ways Your Bathroom is Making You Sick

But in case you find yourself facing an encroaching onslaught of the illness though coworkers or school-age kids, This Old House has a few strategies to make life as hard as possible for the flu—or any germs, for that matter—to take root in your house.

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Watch Out for Germy Hot Spots

The sink, the telephone, children's toys, and doorknobs are popular landing sites for virus and bacteria. If someone is sick at home, disinfect daily, especially the remote control and the phone. Charles Gerba, microbiologist and author of The Germ Freak's Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu, says remote controls and countertops can be the germiest locale in the whole house. "What's the first thing you do after you call in sick? Pick up the remote control," he says. "Sixty percent of them contain influenza virus in the home of a sick person."

In fact, Gerba says, remote controls are the germiest thing in hotel and hospital rooms. And since a virus like influenza spreads through touching something a sick person has also touched, or an object that's been sneezed on, cleaning off the places your hand usually goes is most important.

(Eric Piasecki | ThisOldHouse.com)
Disinfect the Desk

According to Gerba, the home office is another place to watch out for germs. "Desktops have 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat," he says.

Gerba says to disinfect your desktop weekly, along with the rest of the house. This could reduce your exposure to colds and flu by as much as 50 percent.

READ: Easy First Aid For DIY Injuries

(Alexandra Bandon | ThisOldHouse.com)
Don't Forget the Sponge

Your kitchen sponge should be replaced every couple of weeks. If that runs counter to your frugal ways, you can microwave it for one minute or run it in the dishwasher to eliminate germs.

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Stop Pushing Germs Around

Beware of dust rags, dishrags, mops and other cleaning tools. Unless sanitized between uses, they only spread around the germs you are trying to kill. "It's a free ride for the virus," says Gerba. Some of the cleanest houses he's tested had the highest germ counts. And get this: a few untidy bachelor pads tested very low for germs, which he attributes to lazy housekeeping. "They don't move anything around, everything is in the sink or the garbage."

But you don't have to descend into bachelor habits to defeat contagion. Gerba advises heavy reliance on paper towels. If you don't want to stockpile disposable towels, wash and dry cleaning tools at high temperatures so your house is clean and germ-free.

READ: 10 Ways Your House Can Kill You

(Alexandra Bandon | ThisOldHouse.com)
Examine Product Claims Closely

There's a lot of goods that tout themselves as "anti-bacterial" on the label, from floor tile and paint, to hand cleanser and magic markers. The Environmental Protection Agency has a list of 500 products that disinfect hard, non-porous, surfaces against flu. It includes common household cleaners such as Pin Sol, Clorox, and Lysol. Look for the word "disinfect" or "sanitize" on the label; that means the EPA has tested and approved its germ killing power.

Some alternatives such as lemon juice, tea tree oil, oregano oil, or lavender oil have properties that kill microbes. But according to Gerba, these natural alternatives often work more slowly, impact a smaller spectrum of microorganisms, and kill fewer of them than products that have passed muster with the EPA.

(GE Appliances)
Put It In the Wash

Modern technology can help do the disinfecting for you through powerful cleaning. If you're already shopping for appliances, take a look at the list of household appliances cited by the NSF (formerly the National Sanitations Foundation). The group has certified dozens of germ-fighting appliances, including dryers, dishwashers, and washing machines.

GE Profile dishwasher, about $920.

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