Hospitals clean with great attention to what organisms caused illness within that patient room. The pathogen could be a virus, a bacteria, a fungus, or other microorganism. Each pathogen has its own unique characteristics that dictate the kind of cleanser needed, the frequency of cleaning required, and many other factors. Even though some of the organisms causing hospital-acquired infections are different than those that cause our typical community-acquired infections, we should use this same type of approach in our home cleaning. First, let’s learn about the viruses and bacteria that cause most of our sick days.
This post discusses diagnosis, symptoms, and details about illnesses that are not intended to be taken as medical advice. Always discuss health issues with your doctor.
CLEANING TIP Colds require basic disinfection of surfaces. The flu requires additional vigilance, such as spraying furniture, disinfecting washers, dryers, and other appliances, and care minimize contact.
How do I know if it’s a cold or the flu? Cold symptoms are staggered: sore throat, then runny nose/sneezing, then cough. A cold will usually last about 5 days. Flu symptoms come all at once, are more severe, and come with a fever, chills and aches. The typical flu can last 5 or more days, but the fatigue and weakness can last up to 3 weeks.
Viruses cause our most common ailments, from flu, a stomach bug to our latest concern COVID-19. Viruses are highly contagious and are transmitted via touch, or in some cases, through airborne particles that are inhaled. For the most part, viruses live for shorter periods outside of the body than other microorganisms, especially on porous surfaces such as cloth. However, almost all viruses are illness-causing (there are very few benign viruses), so eliminating or destroying them right away is paramount.
If your loved one has been struggling with a cold, keep in mind that items contaminated with the virus will be most infectious during the first 15 minutes of contact. For example, tissues used to blow a nose will continue to be contagious for 15 minutes, so throw them away immediately and then wash your hands. While their infectious powers decrease significantly after those first 15 minutes, flu viruses can live on smooth surfaces up to 24 hours. Rhinovirus, the most common cause of the common cold, is still contagious on hands after 1 hour. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, lives for 2-3 days on plastic & stainless steel.
In contrast, RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, can survive on hands for an hour or more, and up to 5 hours on counter tops. This is a very, very common cause for flu-like symptoms, and can be especially dangerous to children and older adults. The sick adult is highly contagious for the first 8 days, while children and babies can be contagious up to three weeks.The flu virus, like the cold virus, is most contagious during the first 15 minutes, and only survives 5 minutes on hands. However, it can survive for many hours in droplets of water in the air, especially at warmer temperatures. Parainfluenza, the cause of croup in young children, can survive 10 hours on hard surfaces and 4 hours on soft surfaces (cloth, for example).
CLEANING TIP Rotavirus requires stringent isolation, continuous disinfection during the illness period, and strict disinfection after recovery (spraying or wiping down all furniture, fixtures, etc.)
Another extremely common virus is the rotavirus, commonly called the stomach flu. Rotavirus can live for days to weeks outside of the body – and it’s very good at getting out of the body via diarrhea and vomiting. Both of these conditions can also result in the spread of the pathogen through water droplets.
CLEANING TIP It is unlikely that a bacterial infection will spread from one person to another in your home, since a bacterial infection requires special conditions (immature or weak immune system, respiratory congestion, etc.) to take hold. However, young children, the elderly, and immunocompromised people are susceptible (they have the special conditions required), so be more vigilant in your cleaning if you household is vulnerable.
Bacteria are the culprits for fewer community-acquired illnesses, and are thankfully quickly treated with antibiotics. People continue to be contagious even after starting antibiotics, however, so keep in mind that bacteria are far, far, more hardy than viruses. Most bacteria can survive on surfaces for days to weeks (and some for years). They continue to be pathogenic even in dry or hot conditions, so careful cleaning with the right products is essential.
If you are taking care of someone with a bacterial respiratory infection such as a sinus infection or pneumonia, you should be aware that the most common pathogens involved can survive quite some time on surfaces: from 3 days to up to 6.5 months. Even after the patient is treated with antibiotics, he or she can still be spreading the bacteria. Bacterial infections leading to respiratory illness are usually secondary, after an initial viral infection. So if your loved one has been dealing with a viral infection and then gets a bacterial infection, your cleaning regimen should reflect that. (Your doctor will tell you if this is the case.)
CLEANING TIP With food poisoning that comes on quickly, only basic disinfection is required. Delayed, severe food poisoning will require more stringent disinfection that applies to the entire house.
Bacteria leading to an upset stomach are typically transmitted via contaminated food or the fecal-oral route (that’s as gross as it sounds). Gastroenteritis from bacteria, often called food poisoning, will have two different onset scenarios that will dictate your cleaning regimen. If the food poisoning came on a day or more after eating the contaminated food, the fluids produced by that person will be highly contagious. This includes Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli infections. They are rare, caused by unhygienic food preparation, and are the kind of restaurant-localized infection that make the news. If the onset of symptoms happens a half hour to a few hours after eating, then it is not contagious. This type of food poisoning is caused by the toxins released by certain bacteria, which cannot be transmitted.
CLEANING TIP Disinfect bare foot zones when athlete’s foot is present.
The most common household fungal infections are athlete’s foot and yeast infections. Athlete’s foot is highly contagious, so strict disinfection should take place in showers, tubs, bathrooms, patios, porches, and other areas that bare feet may touch. Athlete’s foot also requires clothing and shoe cleaning. The most common yeast infections are not contagious.
Now you know about the primary pathogens leading to illness that are treated at home or with a trip to the doctor. Our next post will cover what cleansers you need to clean your home properly after someone in your household has been sick. One preview: You’re probably not using your disinfectant the right way!
Editor's Note: This post was originally published in February 2016 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy and comprehensiveness.