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DISPATCHES: GERM-PROOFING YOUR HOTEL ROOM

Hotelclean If you think that the bathroom toilet is the least hygienic part of any hotel room, think again.

"It’s the TV remote control," advises Allison Janse. "The remote control is never cleaned yet people are touching it a lot."

If that’s news to you, it then listen to what else Janse finds objectionable in hotel rooms: computer keyboards, comforters and the carpet. She speaks with some authority, having co-authored "The Germ Freak’s Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu: Guerrilla Tactics to Keep Yourself Healthy at Home, at Work and in the World." Her co-author is Dr. Charles Gerba, aka Dr. Germ, an environmental microbiologist and professor at University of Arizona and leading authority on the lack of cleanliness in hotels, workspaces and public places.

In any hotel room, there are bathroom sinks and minbars to worry about, not to mention the desk. And don’t be seduced by the comfortable couch, the Nintendo setup and the flat screens TV. Questionable hotel room cleanliness is about what you can’t see, from dried semen on the bedspread to urine stains on the carpeting and bedbugs in the box springs. A cleaning crew may dust and vacuum and disinfect the bathroom daily, but deep cleaning is usually done just a few times a year.

"People have this idea that the thing they should be most afraid of is the hotel comforter," Janse says. "It can be bad, but the remote control is much worse. It’s where our tests have found the most bacteria and viruses"

It doesn’t matter if you’re booking a five-star hotel or a modest roadside motel. The fact is that your room is probably harboring germs. Bacteria and viruses can live for hours or even days, and they can lead to a stomach bug or a cold. And there are some trouble zones that exist in every hotel room.

"The rule of a thumb to remember is that it’s basically any place where lots of hands have been," Janse says. An editor for Health Communications Inc. and the mother of twins, Janse was inspired to do the book after watching a waiter use a dirty rag to wipe down restaurant tables. A germ freak who always travels with hand sanitizer and her own pillow, she removes the comforter on hotel room beds the moment she arrives.

But she’s the first to admit that there are also solutions to dealing with these problems. And if you want be as proactive as Janse, it helps to travel with her small arsenal. Start with Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer, which comes in a small tube, bottle, or in wipe form. The company claims that it kills 99.99 percent of common germs. Janse also travels with Clorox Disinfecting Wipes for cleaning surfaces. And you can also opt to bring along generic brands of alcohol wipes, the kind used by hospitals and healthcare professionals, which come in individual foil packs.

Products aside, there’s something else you can do to stay healthy in a hotel room: wash your hands. Germs like to travel from your hands to your mouth, nose and eyes.

Now, start with that remote control.

"You don’t know what people have been touching before they touch the remote control," Janse says. "They could have been eating in bed and putting their hand to their mouth."

Janse advocates getting to it with a disinfecting wipe. Two other places that should be wiped down immediately and thoroughly are the telephone and the door handle on the refrigerator or mini bar. And while Janse admits that room and bathroom door handles can be a problem, they’re usually not as bad in terms of harboring germs if they’re made of brass, which inhibits the life of bacteria and viruses.

Next up is the computer keyboard, should your room have one, and any video game controls.

"You have to clean them if you intend to use them," Janse says. "Then there’s the desk itself. When Dr. Gerba was testing hotel rooms in Tucson, he found that the desks in the typical hotel room had 400 times more bacteria than the toilet. And that makes sense. They disinfect the toilet every night. But they never do that to the desk."

As for the bathroom, there are some guidelines that every traveler should follow to ward off germs. Start with your toothbrush.

"You should always keep your toothbrush stored in your medicine bag," she says. "We have studies going back years that show that the nearly invisible aerosol plume of water that rises after a toilet is flushed can stay suspended in the air for hours after flushing."

It’s why you should never leave your toothbrush lying on the sink in the open air. The same holds true for razors. Never lay them down on a bathroom counter without capping them. Germs from the counter can transfer to cuts and nicks on your skin. And it’s why you should always wash the hotel glasses with hot soapy water. And do the same with an ice bucket.

"They only rinse out hotel ice buckets, so don’t think they get cleaned," Janse says. "There may have been a fraternity party in your room the day before. What did they do with that bucket? Are you going to put ice in there that goes right into your drink without washing it out first?"

She herself has traveled with Clorox so she could thoroughly clean the bathtub before bathing her twins. And Janse says she knows "germ freaks who wear flip flops in hotel showers, the same people who won’t take a bath in a hotel bathtub. It’s not disinfected."

In the room itself, walking barefoot on the carpet is a taboo for scrupulous travelers.

"Norwalk Virus can live in uncleaned carpet for up to a month," she says. "And there can be real danger if you have a cut on your foot and get a bacterial infection from something in the carpet."

In terms of the bed, she says "do take the comforter off immediately. Those things are so big and bulky that you know they aren’t cleaned regularly. People put their suitcases on them. And we’ve found all sorts of stains and bacteria on them."

While she takes her owns pillows, she knows other travelers who bring their own pillowcases and even their own sheets.

And then there’s bedbugs, which have made a comeback of late in the United States. Getting rid of them is tough because "we’re not using the hardier pesticides any longer," Janse says. "That’s why there’s been a resurgence in this country. If you enter a hotel room and there’s a sweet smell and kind of buggy odor, request a new room. They can hide in the mattresses, headboard and box springs. Take a look at the sheets. If there’s dark spotting that looks like rusty spots, it’s likely bedbugs."

So how do you find a clean hotel room, or rather, hotel rooms where lack of cleanliness isn’t an overriding issue? Janse suggests checking out websites like TripAdvisor, where guests rate hotels.

"If someone has visited a place that’s especially dirty," she says, "they’ll let you know."

And while bedbugs may not discriminate between five star palaces and el cheapo motels, Janse insists that the price of your room can play a role in its overall cleanliness rating.

"When Dr. Gerba was doing his research, he found that there was a direct correlation between price and cleanliness," Janse says. In general, the more you paid for the room, the cleaner it was. So I guess one lesson is don’t feel guilty for paying more for a hotel room. You may be saving saving your health in the process."

For more info, go to germfreaksguide.com

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