Hygiene: How dirty are street clothes really?

dhe figure that has been disseminated in some Internet media sounds worrying: it is said that at least 72 colonies of bacteria and viruses accumulate on the skin and clothing throughout the day. That seems like a lot and dangerous. Therefore, in some families the rule applies: under no circumstances go to bed in street clothes!

Johannes Knobloch sees this calmly. The specialist in microbiology, virology and infection epidemiology says: “I didn’t count. But one thing is clear: when I return home from abroad, I always take something with me that was not there before.”

Whether these germs can be really dangerous for us depends on many factors. On the one hand, your own state of health. On the other hand, the life expectancy of bacteria and viruses. This also includes how well they can survive in non-optimal conditions.

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“There are huge differences between viruses,” says Knobloch, head of hospital hygiene at the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf. So-called enveloped viruses, such as influenza or coronavirus, have a very short survival time on surfaces. “If I don’t take it directly from there and apply it to my own mucous membranes, there will be no more infection when I return home.”

Non-enveloped viruses behave differently. For example, noroviruses, which cause vomiting and diarrhea: even if you put a few copies on your fingers and then put them in your mouth, transmission can easily occur. “But not about clothes!” clarifies Knobloch. The same thing happens with respiratory infections: you would have to touch your face a lot or come into contact with your eyes.

But when could our street clothes become dangerous for us and what role do beds or sofas play in this? For the hygiene expert, these are very theoretical cases. Of course nothing is impossible. An example: on the bus there is someone with purulent pustules on the skin who scratches and then touches the seats and accessories. It is possible that one of the next passengers will touch these exact areas and bring the pathogen home to bed.

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“So it cannot be ruled out that something like this could happen. Staphylococcus aureus It even increased a little. And if I then get a small scratch, I could get an infection with the pathogen,” says Knobloch. However, they did not reproduce at all on the dry surface. Therefore, the risk is “very manageable.”

Bonn infectologist Peter Walger can also reassure: for healthy patients, clothing “plays almost no role” as a means of disease transmission in the home environment. That’s why there are no rules about how to behave best at home. The answer to the question “Street clothes in bed, yes or no?” It mainly depends on your own sense of cleanliness and hygiene.

And the spectrum is broad, as Walger, member of the board of directors of the German Society for Hospital Hygiene, observes. “Some are extremely picky and change bedding more frequently than every two weeks. “Some people put a quilt on the bed and others don’t care at all.”

Who should wash bed linens most often?

But there are exceptions, that is, people who should be a little stricter with hygiene at home. For example, people with open wounds, neurodermatitis, chronic eczema or poorly controlled diabetes mellitus. “Your skin can become massively colonized by germs, which can become a risk of infection under certain circumstances, for example during an operation or an injury,” says Walger.

These patients must remember to protect themselves and others by applying especially strict hygiene and cleanliness standards at home. For these high-risk patients, it is important to wash clothing and bedding more frequently, and even individual items at at least 60 degrees. “Immediately afterwards, there are practically no germs left that could pose a risk,” says Walger.

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The germs could also cause problems for people with allergies. For example, when they sit on a park bench. Because it can be full of bacteria and fungal spores that we can absorb through our clothes and take home. “It doesn’t necessarily make me sick, but if I’m allergic and I have a lot of them, it may not be good if I breathe them all the time at night,” Knobloch says.

His conclusion: “It cannot be said that there is no risk of germs on clothing, but it is very manageable.” Ultimately, there is no activity that is associated with zero risk. If you don’t want to expose yourself to any danger, you’ll have to lock yourself in your apartment for the rest of your life.

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