You’re settling into your booth at your favorite restaurant, hungry for a juicy hamburger with fries. Germs are probably the last thing on your mind, but they’re lurking all around you: On the seat where 20 others have sat before you that day; on the grimy menu pages; on the surface of tabletop where Mama changed Junior’s diaper.
Although we’d rather not think about it, restaurants are teeming with appetite-squashing germs. In most cases, though, these germs are not a cause for concern, says Aileen M. Marty, M.D., Professor of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine at Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine: “What matters is how nasty the germ is and what amount you are exposed to. For most intestinal bacteria the infectious dose is in the thousands.”
Certain populations are especially vulnerable to restaurant germs, including immunocompromised individuals such as the very young, the elderly and those with underlying diseases such as HIV/AIDS. “But even having a cold may make you more susceptible to germs,” Marty notes. Genes play a role too: “An organism may grow better in one person than another,” she adds.
Still, there’s no need to cancel dinner reservations, says Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., MSPH, Associate Professor of Environmental Health Science, University of Arizona College of Public Health in Tucson: “What’s important is minimizing your risk of illness by taking precautions like washing your hands and not putting them in your mouth.”
In fact, to some extent, exposure to germs protects us, says Marty: “Microbes such as gut bacteria help keep our immune system alert and in balance.”
Still, for the squeamish—or the immune compromised—here is a list of restaurants’ germiest spots and the ways to lessen your risk of exposure and potential for illness.
Seats: “The top spot for germs is your seat,” says Reynolds. “Everyone puts their hands on them, and kids’ diapers leak. Seats either don’t get sanitized or they are wiped by rags that spread germs rather than sanitize. You can expect a lot of fecal bacteria on restaurant seats.”
Solution: “Wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer right before you eat if you’ve touched anything that the general population has used,” she says.
Ketchup bottles. Servers refill them, but it’s unlikely they get wiped down with antibiotic spray. The same goes for any jarred table condiment—salt, pepper, sugar.
Solution: “Wipe down the sides of the bottle with a napkin or hold it with a napkin,” suggests Marty. That can cut the levels of bacteria you’re exposed to.
Glasses. “The rims of glasses are a top site for germs because waiters often carry them with their fingers inside the glasses,” says Reynolds.
Solution: Avoid the glass by using a straw. “Or gently say to the waiter, ‘I’m a germaphobe. Can I have a new glass?” suggests Reynolds.
Soap Dispensers. “If your hands are contaminated with fecal bacteria and then you touch the soap dispenser, it’s now contaminated as well,” says Marty.
Solution: Put the soap on a paper towel first so you don’t have to touch the dispensers, suggests Marty. If you do touch one, wash your hands with soap and scrub them off with a paper towel. “That will reduce the bacterial load,” she says.
Lemon Slices. A 2007 study in The Journal of Environmental Health done at Passaic Country Community College found that 69.7 percent of lemon slices from restaurants carried various microorganisms such as E. coli—bacteria that can cause severe food poisoning—and other fecal bacteria. “Lemons get handled with bare hands,” says Reynolds. “And the containers they are in are not frequently sanitized, so there’s lot of opportunity for contamination.”
Solution: Squeeze the lemon juice into your glass but then chuck the rind, says Reynolds. Or skip the lemon altogether.
The Buffet. “Buffets are ripe for transmission of germs, especially if the food is just kept warm,” says Reynolds. “That’s the perfect temperature for bacteria like E. coli, salmonella, and norovirus, all major causes of gastrointestinal upset, to grow.” Bacteria can thrive between 41-140 degrees F. To kill bacteria, the temperature has to be at least 165 degrees F.
Solution: “Avoid buffets,” says Reynolds. “When you read about outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, many are from buffets.”
The Daily Special. The chef could be offering a new recipe—or getting rid of old meat and produce, says Reynolds: “I once asked for the soup of the day and was told they threw it out because it went bad.”
Solution: “ You have to ask, ‘Are the ingredients fresh today?’” says Reynolds.
The bottom line? While you shouldn’t go through life as a germophobic (a little dose of germs is healthy, after all), you also shouldn’t blindly trust that all public venues—including your go-to lunch eatery—get a clean bill of health.