Bad news, mysophobes

If you count medical school, I have been caring for patients in some capacity for two decades.  I have seen all manner of illnesses.  Some have been genetic.  Some have been autoimmune.  Some have been environmentally-acquired.  And of course a great many have been infectious.

Would anyone care to guess how many patients in that time had acquired a disease from an infected sofa?

If you guessed “none,” pat yourself on the back.

Zilch.  Nada.  Not a one.

It was thus with some surprise that I happened upon a commercial for Lysol disinfectant spray the other night.  In it, viewers are advised that Lysol will kill 99.9% of the germs that linger on their couches.  It features a young mother spraying the product on such a couch, with one of those simulated close-up views of a bunch of germs being instantly obliterated upon contact.  (I regret that I couldn’t find the specific ad for linkage, and so you’ll have to take my word for all of this.)  A happy tot then plays on it, with the radiant mother confident she has protected her child from dangerous pathogens.

I have some sad news for those of you who rushed right out and bought Lysol disinfectant spray to guard your own families against the horrible pathogens lurking in the cesspools you call furniture.  Friends, germs are pretty much everywhere.  They’re in the Sahara.  They’re under the ice in Antarctica.  Aside from items fresh out of the autoclave, they’re all over the place.  The computer you’re using to read this is veritably teeming with them.

Now, before you go and make like John Travolta circa 1976, I have some wonderful, wonderful additional news.  Your body has this marvelous system whose entire function is to keep you from croaking from all those nasty little germs.  It’s called the “immune” system, and pretty much everyone has one.  Unless your davenport is hopelessly encrusted with filth (in which case a few squirts of Lysol probably won’t cut it), your body’s circulating immunoglobulins, lymphocytes, complement proteins, etc. will probably make short work of what you’re trying to kill with all that disinfectant spray anyhow.  Plus, there is at least some indication that getting exposed to a certain degree of bacteria is good for your kid.

Except… damn!  More bad news!  You and your loved ones will almost certainly sicken anyway.  Unless you really do plan to put your kids in bubble suits, they will come into contact with all manner of sickness in daycare or school or the grocery store or some other source on this glorious planet-sized petri dish we call Earth.  It cannot be helped, Lysol-wielders, and if your goal is to prevent it then you’re in for a long, unpleasant wake-up call.

Suffice it to say, I find this contemporary phobia of all possible contact with illness baffling and irrational.  People get sick.  They always have, and I suspect they’re likely to for the foreseeable future.  Trying to sanitize that possibility away is a fool’s errand.  Our bodies were created/evolved (take your pick!) to deal with this unavoidable reality, and there’s at least some evidence that it’s not a good idea to try to keep it from that task.

This isn’t to say that cleaning one’s house is a waste of time.  You’ll still want to disinfect your kitchen counters if the package of uncooked chicken leaked on it.  (And hey!  Why not choose Lysol in that situation?)  By all means scrub your toilets, mop your floors and cleanse your sinks on a regular basis.  (Also, wash your hands!)  I’m not advocating an “up with squalor!” approach to life.

But this mania for disinfecting everything we could possibly come into contact with is silly, and quite possibly counterproductive.  You and your kids are going to get exposed to bacteria and viruses and molds.  The overwhelming number will be mopped up by your immune system, and a few will sneak through and make you sick… and then you’ll get better.  Sometimes you’ll need a little help from a medical provider: it’s what we’re here for.

But nothing is accomplished by spraying down your sofa, other than to give it an oddly chemical smell.  You should stop.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. Great post. I’ve wondered when we became a country of wimpy germs phones for a while now, if it’s something brought on by companies like the makers of products like Lysol, or if it’s the expression of some kind of deeper rooted fears.

    Whatever. I’ll be damned if I spray my couches with Lysol.

  2. germs and toxins and autism seem to be the three major concerns of the various mommy groups my wife associates with. i regard them with the same wary eye a 1950s soda shop owner would regard a gang of greasers.

    • In the order you list:

      1) They’re everywhere. Live with it.

      2) It’s almost all a bunch of hooey. Relax.

      3) Nobody knows what causes it. (Vaccinate your kids, everyone!) Worrying about it will accomplish nothing.

      • i find the fixation on autism to be a bit unseemly. i realize a lot of it is driven by the same stuff that leads to the jockeying for prestige pre school programs and the like, but still.

    • Wait, who gets the wary eye? The pathogens etc., or the mommy groups?

      You guys obviously never saw the sofa we had in college, although by the time we acquired it it was too far gone for Lysol, and the only available approach would have been similar to the one Sherman took on his march to the sea.

      Since becoming adults and acquiring a new settee, we’ve just gone with the occasional Febreeze for dog odor, and sofa, so good.

      • “Wait, who gets the wary eye? The pathogens etc., or the mommy groups?”

        the mommy groups. they are, uh, creative in their, uh, creativity.

        let’s just say this is a “make your own lube out of almond oil and other natural ingredients so you don’t get the cancer” type of crowd.

        • My wife will not stop reading that stuff. She knows it’s mostly bunk but she seems unable to look away.

          Of course, she’s a mild/moderate germophobe – that kind of stuff just preys on her existing anxieties.

    • i regard them with the same wary eye a 1950s soda shop owner would regard a gang of greasers.

      Best line on the Internet today.

  3. On my camping trips sanitation is a pretty minimal activity. I usually take a small bottle of Purelle hand sanitizer, and soap and scrubby for the pots and pans, and that’s about it. I use the sanitizer mostly if I’ve just been in water that might have giardia and I’m about to handle food that won’t be cooked. I sit in the dirt, eat gorp with dirt on my hands, lay the cooking spatula down on a convenient rock, etc.

    I’ve never gotten sick from camping. Doesn’t mean I couldn’t, or never will, but if germs were really something to have such a heightened sense of fear about, I think I probably would have by now.

  4. I often marvel at the great lengths we go to protect kids from germs that virtually no adult follows.

    We demand that the children wash their hands before each and every meal; I actually think it is mandated by various licensing and oversight bodies. But allow me to ask… how many of you wash your hand before each and every meal? When you sit down for a steak at Morton’s, do you first excuse yourself to visit the washroom? And, after doing so, do you avoid touching anything save for the food on your plate? Didn’t think so.

    I live in a germ paradise. I work with young kids, in tight quarters, with a bathroom attached to the classroom.
    I haven’t been genuinely sick since getting mono in college. I might get a post nasal drip or stuffy nose and that such thing, but I haven’t needed any medicine stronger the penicillin in 8+ years.
    I don’t think these two facts are unrelated.

    • I am too superstitious to trumpet this fact too loudly, but I almost never get sick during cold and flu season. Every so often a rogue virus sneaks through (I actually got conjunctivitis a few months ago), but otherwise my immune system is kept at full tilt all the time by the constant exposure I get to kids who sneeze all over me every day.

      • I’ve gotten conjunctivitis, but as a contact wearer, that seems like it just comes with the territory.

        My question is… why do you let them sneeze all over you? Disregarding Lysol is one thing, but must you take your pro-germ dogma so far as to banning tissues?

        • I’m not entirely sure if your question is serious (I suspect not), but just in case you’re really asking… of course I’d prefer my patients sneeze into the tissues we have in every room. But frequently when I’m looking in their ears, peering into their throats, leaning over their chests to listen, etc a sneeze will erupt and shower me with tiny little immune-boosting droplets.

          I tell myself it’s a perk.

          • Heh… I of all people know full well the risks of becoming someone’s sneeze guard. I can only imagine how it must work for you being in such close capacity to their various orifices .

    • I wash my hands before meals, especially if I’m going to eat with them (e.g. pizza), and afterward to clean the food off them. Is that odd?

      • I do this, too, but I don’t know how reliable a marker for normal behavior I am. (I this as in so many aspects of life, actually.) I wash my hands so often as part of my job that I do it without thinking.

        • I wash my hands a LOT. Like, an I-sometimes-worry-about-OCD-amount of washing. My knuckles/backs of my hands got dry and painfully cracked/split recently with the drier air.

          We have two little ones and two dogs and I am always trying to avoid transferring one’s messes to another; this has not helped.

      • Well, when you go out with others to eat, how many join you in the bathroom before sitting down?

        I’ll wash my hands if they feel or look dirty or grimey, but I’m pretty gross as it is and pay little attention to such matters of hygene that I am also not an ideal barometer. But I do know that the lines at the bathroom tend to form after eating and drinking, not before.

  5. If you’re going to clean one thing in the house (other than the kitchen), clean your shower head. Wet, dark, and lots of surfaces for nasty stuff to grow. Which you then inhale.

  6. Amen, Dr. Saunders.

    I’m a tidy cat. I use a simple bleach solution to sanitise food prep areas. I sanitise everything with the same solution: the shower, sinks, the toilet, the refrigerator. Changing the pH with a simple titration of bleach is a gracious plenty and it doesn’t have to be very strong, either. And it’s dirt cheap.

    There’s a simple enough rule of thumb here: open wounds are a breach in your immune system. That’s where infection can and will arise. We’ve evolved to digest live bacteria, the pH of the stomach can get as low as 1 when you’re digesting protein of any sort. A culture of your mouth is far nastier than most people suppose, yet we manage just fine.

    These chemicals and drugs firms have scared people stupid. Situations they shouldn’t fear, they do. Conversely, situations they should fear, they don’t. Polluted drinking water kills tens of thousands of people every year. My parents used to preach to people in Africa about the evils of drinking ruan tabke, water from puddles. One of the greatest advance in human history was the understanding of how to maintain a safe drinking water supply. The Romans grasped it and the understanding was lost for centuries before it was rediscovered in the cholera epidemics of London.

    I’ve often wondered if some of our current problems with asthma aren’t related to our hyper-cleanliness. Children who aren’t allowed to get dirty outdoors aren’t exposed early to allergens: their immune systems haven’t learned to cope.

    • I’ve often wondered if some of our current problems with asthma aren’t related to our hyper-cleanliness. Children who aren’t allowed to get dirty outdoors aren’t exposed early to allergens: their immune systems haven’t learned to cope.

      One of the links above was to information about a study regarding leukemia risk. But similar research is being done with regard to asthma, other chronic inflammatory conditions, etc just along these lines.

      • I saw that, the Finnish study you linked in. It went into the genetic aspects of asthma and exposure to pets, sorting out how much time the animal spent outside. And this is what piqued my interest:

        We also showed that children living in houses in which dogs spend only part of the day inside (defined as ,6 hours or temporally) had the lowest risk of infectious symptoms and respiratory tract infections. A possible explanation for this interesting finding might be that the amount of dirt brought inside the home by dogs could be higher in these families because they spent more time outdoors. In other words, less dirt is brought indoors by dogs who mainly live indoors. The living environment could also affect the amount of dirt and animal contacts. Hence, we did a subanalysis and evaluated the effect of animal contacts on overall healthiness separately for children living in rural and suburban environments. The directions of associations did not change, although some of the associations weakened slightly, as well as some got stronger. Furthermore, we included the area of living as a covariate in the multivariate analysis, and the associations between dog exposure and health variables remained. The amount of dirt is likely to correlate with bacterial diversity in the living environment, possibly affecting the maturation of the child’s immune system and further affecting the risk of respiratory tract infections. However, in this article, we could not objectively analyze the actual role of bacterial diversity, which will have to be the subject of further studies.

        It seemed to make sense to me, raising my kids back in the Pleistocene, but then it was just an old wives’ tale. I liked to see my kids getting dirty and horsing around outside and I sensed it was good for them. Now we might be reaching some scientific conclusions about it.

    • my son will be relieved to know that he’s strengthening mind, body and soul every time he double barrels his nose and samples the turkish delights that follow.

    • I would rather die of a horrible wasting disease than follow that advice, is all I’ll say. But maybe I’ll turn slightly less green when my son insists on complying with the recommended behavior.

  7. I like to think of each individual person as a colony, not an individual. We each travel with a host of flora and fauna that make our live possible; and those friends living within us help often help us deal with the flora and fauna outside of ourselves.

    If we work too hard to kill of the stuff outside of each of us, we also kill the friends within. And that makes us less healthy, not more.

    Plus a little dirt provides the workout our immune systems need to keep in shape. I grew up milking cows, cleaning barns, washing milk dishes. While I have a lot of neurological problems, I rarely get sick from a bug; even one raging through the rest of my family.

    Thanks, Russel. Most excellent commentary.

  8. From what I understand, the folks who get degrees in microbiology have one of two responses to what they learn.

    1. Sanitize *EVERYTHING*. Lysol *EVERYTHING*. Hand sanitizer ALL THE TIME. Wipe it down, spray it, wipe it down again.

    2. “Eh, five minute rule.”

    • The brewers I know are absolutely fanatical about keeping their brewing equipment clean. Would that they were as careful about keeping the bar as clean…..

      • The brewers I know are absolutely fanatical about keeping their brewing equipment clean.

        That’s because they’re working with specific colonies to produce specific flavors. Brewers also knot that there are colonies in the ingredients they work with. Unknown introductions to the cultures create potential for other, often off flavors and can introduce toxins, much like the raw chicken on the counter.

  9. Fear. Works every time. Scare ’em and they’ll do what you want.

    I learned that in law school. But Madison Avenue knew it a long time before lawyers did.

  10. Hey Russ,

    A practical question: I’ve come down with some sort of stomach bug that has been making the rounds at my school. I’ll spare details, but it is relatively debilitating if thankfully short-lived. I’m doing my damnedest to isolate myself from Julie, as catching something like this approaching 38 weeks is no bueno. I planned to wash all the sheets, blankets, etc. that I’ve been rolling around in but this post makes me think this may be fruitless. Thoughts?

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