If you’re planning to travel for the holidays this year, it’s inevitable that at some point you will come in contact with a touch screen.
From checking into your flight at the airport to ordering a sandwich to go or selecting a movie to watch on the plane, touch-screen technology has become an integral part of traveling.
And while these screens seem to have improved the way we travel, they’ve also become a hotspot for harmful germs and bacteria. They may very well be the reason you tend to get so sick after traveling.
In fact, infection-causing bacteria from human and animal feces can be found on most public touch screens, suggests a new study conducted at London Metropolitan University in the U.K.
Much of these bacteria found in public areas originate from people’s intestines, gut, nose, mouth, throat, and feces.
On average, there are about 253,857 colony-forming units per square inch on airport check-in screens, according to research from Insurance Quotes.
Other studies have found potentially dangerous bacteria on touch screens in hospitals and in grocery stores.
Enterococcus faecalis (E. faecalis) — bacteria that come from the flora in our gastrointestinal tracts — are commonly found on our screens and are most known to be spread in hospitals. An E. faecalis infection may cause fever, fatigue, headache, chills, vomiting, and diarrhea. And in more severe cases, can lead to meningitis or urinary tract infections.
“Enterococcus faecalis is a normal ‘resident’ of the gut. So, if they’re present on a touch screen, it’s likely due to someone not washing their hands after going to the bathroom. Introduction of these type of bacteria into an open wound can cause septicemia — bacteria in the blood,” Sarah Fankhauser, PhD, an assistant professor of biology at Oxford College of Emory University, said.
Another bacterium frequently found on public touch screens is staphylococcus — sometimes called “staph.” According to Fankhauser, staph is found on the skin and noses of 25 percent of the population and typically does not cause disease in the person who carries it.
However, if it gets into an open wound or is ingested, staph can cause blood poisoning, pneumonia, toxic shock syndrome, skin infections, and food poisoning.
Researchers were also shocked to discover that listeria, a dangerous foodborne, disease-causing bacterium, was present on public touch screens as well.
“It is surprising, and disturbing, that this bacteria in particular was found on a restaurant touch screen. This bacteria originates from the soil and is the source of a few foodborne outbreaks each year,” Fankhauser explained.
If left untreated, it can cause miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women.
The vast majority of the bacteria found on public touch screens are very contagious. And while anyone can develop an infection, those with weakened immune systems are most at risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
One of the biggest concerns health experts have is that many of these pathogens are becoming more resistant to common antibiotics. As a result, these infections have become increasingly difficult to treat.
Germs are all around us, and in many cases, unavoidable.
But the transferring of germs is largely due to poor hygiene. People touch their noses or mouths then use a touch screen, which can quickly spread diseases.
“I am most concerned about touch screens that order food that will be eaten ‘barehanded’ without utensils, especially since many customers ordering will not find time to wash before they get their orders and start eating, again often with their (contaminated) bare hands,” Dr. Robert Amler, the dean and professor of public health at New York Medical College, told Healthline.
The best defense is to wash your hands frequently, says Amler. In general, facilities sanitize their screens during and after the business day. That being said, it’s not practical to sanitize the screen after each customer uses it. It’s up to you to stay clean after using a screen frequently touched by other people.
“Wash or sanitize your hands as soon as possible after touching screens and other surfaces commonly touched by lots of other people,” Amler advised.
This is especially important to do before and after you handle and eat food, he added.
While soap and water are your best bet, it’s also wise to travel with a hand sanitizer.
Lastly, while infection-causing bacteria are spread year-round, the flu — along with other illnesses like strep and the common cold — are more widespread during the winter months.
Consequently, all those touch screens likely carry more pathogens around the holidays, increasing your chances of getting sick.
While it may be impossible to completely avoid touch screens if you’re traveling during the holiday season, it’s definitely worth washing your hands as much as you can.