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30 Health Mistakes You're Making in Public

And here's how to fix them!

You might run your home like the tightest ship: Up at 7am, morning yoga, healthy breakfast. But once you step outside, all bets are off. From the minute you leave the house, there are a number of all-too-easy mistakes that can jeopardize your health — and other people's, too. These are the most common missteps to avoid. (Spoiler: You don't need to apply hand sanitizer right now … but it wouldn't hurt.)


You Are Riding a Public Bike

woman ready to rent a city bike in New York

Public bikes: So good for the environment, potentially not great for you. In 2017, the editor of Men's Health tested bacteria levels on various surfaces in New York City. The dirtiest item he found: the city's shareable CitiBikes, which were 45 times germier than a subway pole.

The Rx: When using a shared bike — or, for that matter, picking up coffee — bring some alcohol-based hand sanitizer along for the ride.


You Are Rubbing Your Eyes After Shaking Hands

businessman taking off glasses rubbing dry irritated eyes

Shaking someone's hand, then rubbing your eyes, is a super-efficient way to spread germs and get yourself sick, especially during flu season. The sensitive mucous membranes of the eyes are like an E-Z Pass lane for bacteria and viruses.

The Rx: After shaking hands, be conscious of not touching your face until you can use hand sanitizer or wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. (What counts as "thoroughly"? Read on.)


You Are Speaking Close And Breathing Germs in Someone's Face

dissatisfied man looking at woman

Close talkers aren't just annoying — their habit might give you the flu. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study that found the flu virus may be spread simply by breathing.

The Rx: If you have a cold or flu, keep your distance. The CDC says that coughing, sneezing or talking can spread the virus up to six feet.

RELATED: 50 Unhealthiest Habits on the Planet


You Are Hanging With Smokers Outside Work/the Bar

Woman looking displeased at a man smoking outdoor

Secondhand cigarette smoke isn't just a threat indoors. Researchers at Stanford University found that a non-smoker sitting a few feet downwind from a smoky cigarette is exposed to substantial levels of contaminated air. "We were surprised to discover that being within a few feet of a smoker outdoors may expose you to air pollution levels that are comparable, on average, to indoor levels we measured in previous studies of homes and taverns," said Wayne Ott, a Stanford engineering professor and co-author of the study. "If you're at a sidewalk café, and you sit within 18 inches of a person who smokes two cigarettes over the course of an hour, your exposure to secondhand smoke could be the same as if you sat one hour inside a tavern with smokers."

The Rx: Your exposure to the toxins in smoke gets lower with distance. The Stanford researchers suggest moving six feet away.


You Are Talking On Your Dirty Cellphone

woman at cafe drinking coffee and using mobile phone

It's true: Your cellphone may contain more bacteria than a toilet seat. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, has tested phones that contained 100,000 bacteria. They're always with us — and often near our faces — so they're a major vehicle for spreading germs. "Viruses are a bit more mobile today than ever before because you've got mobile phones," said Gerba.

The Rx: Disinfect your cellphone once a month with a solution of 60% water and 40% rubbing alcohol. Apply it with a microfiber cloth or cotton pad. Don't spray anything directly onto the phone; you might damage it.


You Are Not Washing Your Hands

Woman Washing Hands In Kitchen Sink

If you don't wash your hands after using a public restroom … you're unfortunately not alone. A CDC study showed that only 31% of men and 65% of women wash their hands after using a public toilet. That means a lot of bacteria commonly found in restrooms — including E. coli, strep, salmonella and other fecal bacteria — is heading out into the world, starting with the door handle.

The Rx: Always wash your hands with soap and water. Read on to see how long.


You Are Not Washing Your Hands Long Enough

The hands of a man who washes his hands with soap dispenser

Even if you do remember to wash your hands, you might not be washing them long enough to properly remove bacteria. A recent study by the USDA found that 97 percent of us don't wash our hands correctly, and the most common mistake is not washing them long enough.

The Rx: The USDA recommends washing your hands with soap for 20 seconds — about long enough to sing "Happy Birthday" twice — and drying them thoroughly.

RELATED: 20 Facts That Will Change the Way You Wash Your Hands


You Are Sitting All Day

businessman working on his laptop. Handsome young man at his desk

We have something to tell you — are you sitting down? Then you might want to stand up. A meta-analysis of 13 studies found that people who sat for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying similar to that caused by obesity and smoking.

The Rx: Get up and move throughout the day. Take a break from sitting every 30 minutes, stand as much as possible, and walk around frequently. And get regular exercise: The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity (such as brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity weekly.


You Are Eating Alone

middle-aged woman are laughing holding and eating pizza

Taking yourself out to lunch is a great antidote to a hectic office, but if you find yourself flying solo at all your meals, it might not be the best thing for your health. We tend to eat less healthily when we're by ourselves than when someone else is involved. Some studies have even found a link between lonely eating and health problems like depression, heart disease and obesity.

The Rx: Researchers believe loneliness increases chronic stress, a risk factor for a number of health problems. So never get too lonely — schedule regular time to visit with friends or family.


You Are Not Going Outside

friends on daybeds are sitting outdoors on the lawn and enjoying bright spring sun

If you spend all your time in public indoors, it can make you pasty. And that's more than a cosmetic concern. Never spending time in sunlight means you're depriving yourself of vitamin D, a health powerhouse that's produced by our skin in response to the sun's rays.

The Rx: Aim to get 15 minutes of sun a day. "Fifteen minutes of sunlight can help naturally boost Vitamin D levels, which help with bone health and immune function and can also keep circadian rhythm in sync," says John M. Martinez, MD, a primary care physician in La Mesa, California.


You Are Demonstrating Bad Posture

Young woman working with computer at office

If you spend much of your time at a desk, chances are you're hunched over a keyboard, and that can be detrimental to your health. Poor posture can cause muscle aches and strains and headaches — and one study found that good posture might even alleviate depression.

The Rx: Get yourself into alignment.


You Are Not Sanitizing Your Work Space

Woman Cleaning The Glass Office Desk With Rag

Some of the most overlooked breeding grounds for disease-causing germs sit in our offices, in the form of the keyboard, phone and desk. It's common sense: Our hands (or mouth) are on or near them all day. If you don't sanitize them — especially when you're sick — you could pass germs on to anyone who shares the space with you.

The Rx: Always sanitize your work area if you aren't feeling well, especially in co-working spaces. Wipe down the desk, phone, keyboard and door handles with an antibacterial wipe or spray.


You Are Not Covering Your Mouth/Nose When You Cough Or Sneeze

woman with handkerchief has sneezing attack, blowing nose while working with colleagues on meeting, caught cold, flu symptom

When you need to cough or sneeze, don't just let it fly. The CDC says that a simple cough or sneeze can spread flu germs up to six feet. MIT scientists call it a "paint-like pattern of fluid fragmentation." It's not that pretty.

The Rx: Don't use your hand. Cover your mouth and nose with your upper sleeve or the inside of your elbow.


You Are Going to Work Sick

woman with cold, working on laptop computer, coughing and sneezing

For many of us, "toughing it out" and "powering through it" are a way of life. But when you're sick, it shouldn't be — for yourself and the health of your co-workers. Yet, according to a survey by NPR and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 55 percent of Americans say they regularly head into the office when they're ill.

The Rx: If you're contagious, stay home. Your colleagues will thank you for it.


You Are Handling Dirty Shopping Carts

grocery cart in aisle with blurred background

"Over 50 percent of the shopping carts at your grocery store harbor disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli that can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, fatigue and fever," says Mitra Shir, MSc, RHN, a registered holistic nutritionist in Vancouver. "The germs — that come from other shoppers who already have the bacteria or have touched contaminated products — can live on the surface for hours."

The Rx: Many grocery stores have antibacterial wipes you can use to wipe down the handles; they're also sold in portable packs you can bring with you. Wipe the handle, then let it dry completely for 20 seconds before you touch it.


You Are Opening the Freezer Doors in Supermarkets

Women buying frozen food

Family-sized lasagna isn't the only threat that lurks in the freezer section. Door handles in the frozen-foods aisle are rife with bacteria. One study found certain handles held 33,340 bacteria colonies per square inch — more than 1,235 times the bacteria found on the average cell phone.

The Rx: When you hit the supermarket, bring hand sanitizer along.


You Are Putting Your Groceries On the Checkout Conveyor


Michigan State University researchers randomly tested a number of supermarket checkout conveyor belts for bacteria; they found it on 100 percent. The belts are made from PVC, a porous plastic that's a breeding ground for germs, yeast and mold.

The Rx: Put all your produce in plastic bags. When you get home, thoroughly wash anything you bought that will touch your lips.

RELATED: 100 Ways Your Home Could Be Making You Sick


You Are Drinking Too Much

Group Of Friends Enjoying Drink At Outdoor Rooftop Bar

We're all working for the weekend, and a night out is a great way to relax and bond with friends and family. Research shows that socializing can improve your health and extend your life — unless you introduce too much alcohol into the equation. The reality is that many Americans drink more heavily than they realize, raising their risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The Rx: Experts recommend moderate drinking — meaning no more than one drink a day for women, and two drinks a day for men younger than 65. After 65, men should dial back to one daily.


You Are Shaking Hands When You're Not Feeling Well

woman shaking hands

If you go out in public when you're sick, avoid making physical contact with others. It's a courtesy that's unfortunately not too common.

The Rx: If you run into a friend, tell them what's going on and that you really should skip the handshake or hug. They'll appreciate your thoughtfulness.


You Are Letting Your Menu Touch Your Plate

Man reading dinner menu

Your cellphone has 10 times the bacteria of a toilet seat. What has 100? A typical restaurant menu. Researchers at the University of Arizona found an average of 185,000 bacteria on menus in a random sampling of restaurants in three states. It makes sense: Each menu could be handled by dozens of people each day, and a study in the Journal of Medical Virology found that cold and flu viruses can survive on hard surfaces for 18 hours.

The Rx: Never let a menu touch your plate or silverware. It's a good idea to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after you order, too.


You Are Taking the Bus Or Subway

Woman on bus commuting

If you commute via bus or subway, you're six times more likely to get sick than if you walk or drive — simply because you're encountering many more people and their germs.

The Rx: Use hand sanitizer or wash your hands (with soap, and at least for 20 seconds) after you use public transportation.

RELATED: 20 Ways Your Car Makes You Sick


You Are Putting Your Purse On the Restroom Floor

Woman legs in a high heels shoes and a black clutch bag on a wooden floor

Going by tests he's conducted, Gerba says about one-third of women's purses are contaminated with fecal bacteria — most likely from being placed on public restroom floors.
The Rx: Don't put your purse on the bathroom floor (or any other surfaces); hang it on a hook or keep it in hand.


You Are Using the Office Coffee Pot

woman holding coffee pot and mug

Gerba told the Washington Post that his researchers tested germ levels in several offices and found an unlikely hot spot — the break room, especially the coffee pot handle. "We found that viruses were spreading between people who had never met," he said. "We figured maybe the problem was the restroom, but it was really the break room." When Gerba and his team placed a synthetic germ in one break room, it spread to almost every surface in the office within four hours.

The Rx: Keep hand sanitizer at your desk, and use it after each trip to the coffee pot.


You Are Bringing Reusable Grocery Bags To the Supermarket

Reusable Bags: Unpacking Meat From Fabric Bags

Reusable shopping bags are environmentally responsible — and kind of filthy. A 2011 study by the University of Arizona found bacteria in 99 percent of reusable bags they tested; 8 percent carried E. coli, suggesting contamination with feces. Only 3 percent of reusable bag owners said they washed them regularly.

The Rx: Sanitize your multi-use bags with hot water and disinfectant weekly.


You Are Ordering Water With Lemon


For a study published in the Journal of Environmental Health, researchers ordered drinks at 21 different restaurants and found that nearly 70 percent of the lemon wedges served on glasses contained disease-causing germs — 25 different microorganisms in all, including E. coli and other fecal bacteria.

The Rx: This is the rare case when we'll advocate reducing your fruit consumption — skip the lemon twist.


You Are Touching Door Handles

hand opening cafe doors

Door handles: We have to use them so often, we don't think about how efficiently they spread diseases like colds and flu. And the door to your favorite coffee shop could see more microbial traffic than a train station. The 2017 Men's Health test found that the second-germiest surface in New York City was the door handle at a Starbucks — it was 30 times germier than a subway pole and 25 times germier than a doorknob at Grand Central Terminal.

The Rx: Don't barricade yourself indoors. To avoid coming down with common bugs, be conscientious about washing your hands or using hand sanitizer before you eat or drink. If you've touched public surfaces like door handles, try not to touch your face before you can clean up.


You Are Using the ATM

woman at the cash machine

Another benefit to our gradual conversion to a cashless society: When Chinese researchers tested 38 ATMs in downtown Taipei, they found that each key contained an average of 1,200 germs, including E. coli and cold and flu viruses. The "enter" key is a particularly popular microbe hangout.

The Rx: When you use the ATM, hit the keys with your knuckle or slap on some hand sanitizer when you're done.


You Are Touching Escalator Handrails

Person holding onto handrail of escalator in public

Germ guru Gerba and his team tested surfaces in shopping malls for bacteria. "We have found food, E. coli, urine, mucus, feces, and blood on escalator handrails," he told CBS News. "And where there is mucus, you may also find cold and flu viruses."

The Rx: Avoid touching handrails, unless you must — then wash your hands or use a generous amount of hand sanitizer afterward.


You Are Playing With Gadgets At the Mall

Customers playing with phone gadgets at Apple Store

Viruses easily transfer from glass surfaces, like the ones on smartphones, to fingertips, a recent study in the Journal of Applied Microbiology found. (Another good reason to sanitize your smartphone regularly.) So you might want to be aware of that when you test touch-screen devices in stores: One study found that of four iPads swabbed in two Apple stores, one contained Staphylococcus aureus, the most common cause of staph infections.

The Rx: If you play with public touchscreen gadgets or computers, wash your hands or hit the hand-sanitizer pump when you're done.


You Are Using Makeup Testers

woman buying lipstick in cosmetics store

A 2005 study found that between 67 and 100 percent of makeup-counter testers were contaminated with bacteria, including E. coli, staph and strep. This can cause a number of skin and eye infections. In 2017, a woman sued the makeup chain Sephora, claiming she contracted oral herpes from using a lipstick tester.

The Rx: Avoid public makeup testers. Ask for a single-use sample that's sealed. If those aren't available and you must test a new shade, apply it to the back of your hand, then wash it off. And live your healthiest life with these 50 Secrets to Live to 100!

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor. Read more about Michael
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