(Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer 10/25/07)
Germophobes of the world unite. For years now, before it became fashionable, I have had what I would call a healthy anxiety about germs and a tendency toward, shall we say, fastidiousness. My husband might have on occasion even referred to me as a paranoid neat-freak. I take this as a compliment. Like all marriages, we have learned to live with one another’s idiosyncrasies. I do have to point out, however, that my husband has never has gotten TB or any other infectious diseases since we have been married!
My apprehension about germs and slovenly housekeeping habits is more of a hyper-awareness of my surroundings and not a form of OCD. I have never sanitized a grocery cart handle, for example, nor have I ever used a hand-sanitizing product. I do wash my hands with regular soap and water frequently, but not excessively. Avian flu does not frighten me, nor does mad cow disease.
However, if I am on an airplane or a train and the guy next to me is hacking away like he’s going to cough up a lung, I do get anxious. If it is possible to move to another seat without him thinking I’m doing so because of him, I will do so. Politeness usually keeps me in my seat, however, and that is what will probably be my downfall. On my tombstone someday it will probably read she died of politeness.
I used to think that I alone suffered from a debilitating distrust of hotel bedspreads, but thanks to all those investigative television shows my worst imaginings have been proven true. Ditto for the remote control, the telephones, and even the hair dryer. These hotel items are all imbued heavily with what I call the Ick Factor. Think about it – if a phone is right next to the toilet… On second thought, don’t think about it.
Cruise ships have recently been getting a bad rap, bringing to my mind a vision of a giant floating petri dish. But, that’s just me. I’m sure that when hundreds of people from all nationalities are crammed together on a large water-bound vessel for long periods of time, sharing all the wonderful shipboard amenities, there should be no problems whatsoever.
This fear of being contaminated by dirt or germs is referred to as misophobia, or also verminophobia, or spermatophobia. I prefer not to think of my apprehension as a true phobia though. It’s more like extreme squeamishness. I mean just because I wouldn’t pick up an airplane pillow or blanket even with a pair of sterilized tongs doesn’t really make me paranoid, does it? You don’t see me complaining about the sticky tray table and the soiled headrest and the leftover crumbs in my seat do you? There are those of us who think of the real-life TB Man episode as more a more horrifying scenario than any of the Saw movies could ever be.
The tendency now is toward “touch-free” items that have heavy public usage. For example, automatic touch-free paper towel dispensers, sink faucets, and toilet-flushers are some of the latest manifestations of this desire of the public not to come into contact with one another’s germs. You know who you are – I’ve seen you press the button on the hot air hand dryer with your elbow.
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recognizes these many concerns and fears of the average citizen and addresses them on their website. One of the many fascinating and helpful recommendations there was that you sing Happy Birthday to yourself twice during the time you wash your hands; that being just the right amount of time for maximum germ removal. Be prepared though for strange looks from family members when you do this. Personally, I prefer any of the songs from The Sound of Music.
Like anything else in life, moderation is probably the key here. None of us wants to be like the Bubble Boy, cut off from all human contact, nor is this a likely option. Whether you use hand sanitizer every ten minutes, or pick up the hotel phone handset wrapped in a hand towel (who, moi?), it’s pretty hard to avoid daily contact with money, restaurant food, gas station restrooms, turnstiles, and airplanes with sick people.
And the chances are that your own living space probably harbors more harmful bacteria than any public area you are likely to visit (unless, of course you choose to visit my son’s college dorm room – then all bets are off). Studies have shown that the average kitchen (sponges, cutting boards, etc.) has more potentially harmful microbes than the average bathroom. All I have to say to that is Ick.