The Grossest, Germiest Parts of Your Office — and How to Avoid Getting Sick

Ah, cold and flu season. Just when you thought your immune system was safe and your sinuses and respiratory tract were in the clear, your good pal Susan in accounting showed up to the water cooler dripping in influenza — just in time to sabotage your "I've never even taken a sick day" track record.

We asked Dr. Honore Lansen, MD at One Medical, and Dr. Jena Sussex-Pizula, MD at the University of Southern California, to share the ultimate defense guide and office strategy to avoiding germs your darling colleagues have brought with them to the common office spaces. Here's what you need to know.

What Are the Germiest Parts of the Office?
POPSUGAR Photography | Mark Popovich

What Are the Germiest Parts of the Office?

Did you know certain surfaces and materials are easier for germs to cling to? "Fomites are materials that can hold germs, like viruses," said Dr. Lansen.

"Unfortunately, lots of office surfaces are nonporous, and therefore, pretty good at transmitting the flu virus," said Dr. Lansen. "Nonporous materials, like glass, plastic, and metal" are the worst. Dr. Larsen and Dr. Sussex-Pizula shared locations that are "prime candidates for flu transmission:"

  • Keyboards
  • Mice
  • Light switches
  • Phones
  • Desks
  • Chairs
  • Doorknobs
  • Printer touch screens
  • Water cooler buttons
Are Any Office Surfaces Safe?
POPSUGAR Photography | Diggy Lloyd

Are Any Office Surfaces Safe?

Not all parts of your office are germ breeding grounds. "Porous materials, such as paper and clothing, trap germs deeper into their fibers, making it more difficult to transmit them from one person to another." Read: if it's porous — like couches, wood tables, paper files, and printed papers — it's probably safer.

Can I Actually Get Sick From Touching a Germy Surface?
Unsplash | Annie Spratt

Can I Actually Get Sick From Touching a Germy Surface?

Dr. Sussex-Pizula noted that while these are germ-riddled areas, "Transmission from surfaces is the least common form of spreading influenza." Phew! Keep in mind, research has shown that 60 percent of surface germs are on items belonging to the infected person — "their desk, computer, and office equipment," said Dr. Sussex-Pizula.

"The other 40 percent of the time, infections are spread via surfaces not directly belonging to the infected person," she said. She mentioned this includes the aforementioned desktops, mice, and water dispenser buttons — so yeah, avoid the water cooler if you can for now. "The most commonly infected surfaces were chairs (9 percent of touch transmissions) and desks (58 percent of touch transmissions)."

"The influenza virus can stay alive on some surfaces for a number of hours," said Dr. Lansen. "It can't live forever on these surfaces, but it can generally survive for the length of an average workday."

What About Germs in the Air?
POPSUGAR Photography | Diggy Lloyd

What About Germs in the Air?

It's not just the germs on your desk that you need to watch out for. "To be clear, the easiest and most common way to contract the flu is directly from person to person," said Dr. Lansen. "A cough or sneeze can send droplets of the virus flying through the air, which can land up to six feet away!" Terrifying.

"When an office environment was studied as a model for the spread of influenza in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers found that the flu virus was actually most likely to be transmitted not by surfaces but by long-range airborne transmission," said Dr. Sussex-Pizula, "i.e., someone infected with influenza coughing and sneezing tens of thousands of tiny flu virus particles into the air that can stay suspended in the air for hours, which then transmit the flu after being inhaled." She told POPSUGAR that this accounted for roughly 54 percent of the total flu infections.

"If flu droplets hit your nose, mouth, or eyes, the virus can start replicating in your system and you can develop the flu," said Dr. Lansen. "And although it's not quite as risky as standing next to someone with the sniffles, you can get the flu by touching a flu-contaminated object and then touching your own face (which we do hundreds of times per day)."

When you see someone looking under the weather, they're essentially a walking transmission. "A person with the flu may cough around 22 times per hour and sneeze around five times per hour," said Dr. Sussex-Pizula. "Unfortunately, these frequent coughs or sneezes can spread droplets containing the flu virus about a one to two meters in front of and surrounding the infected person, and micro particles can actually be spread in the air across entire rooms and persist for hours."

What Should You Do?
Unsplash | Nathan Waters

What Should You Do?

Well, for starters, get the flu shot. Aside from that, here are tactics for both areas of transmission within your workspace:

  • Surfaces: "Wipe down your personal office space with a disinfecting wipe or spray at the start and end of each workday," said Dr. Lansen. "Stay home when you feel symptoms," said Dr. Sussex-Pizula, as this will prevent the transfer of more germs.
  • Air: Avoid people like the plague. Literally. Cut conversations short. "If a sneezy coworker comes by to chat, in addition to ending the conversation as soon as politely possible, it's a good idea to wipe your stuff down after they leave," said Dr. Lansen. "And don't forget to wash your hands!