Bacteria isn’t selective about where it settles, but some areas in our homes are more at risk due to daily activities. Targeting these spots can significantly reduce the chances of coming down with the flu. “People with the flu can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away,” explains Dr. Charles P. Gerba, a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona and co-author of “The GERM FREAK’s Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu.” But even if we try to avoid people who have the flu, we're still at risk from dangers in our own home.

According to Gerba, the kitchen is the worst culprit in the home and office, and is often loaded with bacteria. “Kitchen sponges and dishtowels are notorious for spreading germs around kitchen surfaces,” he says. “A typical kitchen sponge can hold up to 5 trillion microscopic bugs.”

While cleaning these items is vital, it’s not typically at the top of our lists. “A recent survey found that baby boomers are more likely to clean their toilets once a week than their kitchen sponges,” he remarks. But cleaning is not always foolproof either, and a simple tumble in the wash doesn’t necessarily kill all bacteria. 

A good first line of defense 

Since there isn’t a perfect method of sanitizing regularly used kitchen sponges and dishcloths, paper towels are a more sanitary option — especially in the height of flu season. Gerba likens flu prevention to that of salmonella and other food-borne diseases that can be found in raw meat, poultry, and eggs. While it may be easier to reach for a sponge or dishcloth to clean up those messes, they may do more harm than good because of the risks of cross-contamination to other surfaces that would be wiped down. 

A typical kitchen sponge can hold up to 5 trillion microscopic bugs.

“Cleaning more regularly during flu season will help manage the increase of germs,” advises Gerba. Around the holidays, the kitchen is often the room that sees the most foot traffic, so “be sure to constantly wipe down kitchen surfaces with paper towels and a cleaning solution.”

Staying sanitary isn't limited to the home, however, and Gerba notes that the fight against the flu can't be limited to the house. 

Gerba recommends staying home when feeling sick to avoid spreading the virus, and washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, then drying them with paper towels.  When traditional methods are unavailable, Gerba advises using hand sanitizer. After all, other people may have the flu also — and haven't taken his advice on staying clean.