Help! I’m a Germaphobe!

So you’re a germaphobe. The first step is to admit it. It’s not a bad thing….is it? Well, let’s take a look and see!

First, the term “germ” – what is a germ? That’s a slang term, usually we are referring to bacteria and viruses. Let’s define those words to make them less scary! Bacteria are single celled, living organisms. They are similar to all living organisms, in that they meet the same basic requirements. They need food, water, and oxygen to survive. There are few weird bacteria who only can survive well in an total lack of oxygen; those are called anaeobic. Bacteria multiply, and they produce waste. Sound familiar?

Beneficial bacteria – these are the good guys. Most bacteria are either neutral (they don’t bother us), or they are beneficial. According to the latest science, we think it’s 40 trillion bacteria reside in an average human male, most of them in his gut. These bacteria help us to digest our food and a lot of other important stuff. In food, bacteria do things like ferment food (think of sauerkraut) and help with production of other foods like yogurt. They exist in nature for our benefit in many ways as well.

Pathogenic bacteria are disease causing. Fortunately there are not too many of these, but they can cause harm to humans, plants and animals. I list these bacteria under Disease Facts.

Spore forming bacteria – these are bacteria that have the ability to form a protective shell around themselves when their environment is not very favorable. This shell is pretty amazing; it can withstand very high heat, and can last for years if it’s protected, like in the soil. That’s why these types of bacteria can be so hard to kill.

Spoilage bacteria – I get a lot of complaints about these guys. They are the ones that make your food look bad, smell bad, and taste bad. But you won’t actually get a foodborne illness from them. Think of mold, yeasts etc. Moldy cheese, bread, and furry leftovers! Yum.

Toxin forming bacteria – some bacteria form a waste product called a toxin. Toxin is another word for poison. Sometimes people get sick because the bacteria has produced the toxin in the food, and the toxin then causes illness. Other times, the bacteria reproduce in the intestines, and they produce the toxin inside your gut. Either way, the toxin can cause some pretty nasty symptoms. Just like with any chemical, you can’t cook the toxin out of your food. So if your food was improperly cooked, cooled, or reheated, and it’s at risk of toxins, it  should be thrown away. (See diseases for which ones are toxin formers)

Viruses are different critters. They aren’t actually alive; they are considered particles. They can, however, hang out on any surface, some of them for a long time. That’s why if you have a cold, and you touch a lot of surfaces in your house, you will probably be spreading your cold viruses around to your family. They find a way into your body, (like through your nose or a cut in the skin), then they use your own cells to multiply. Viruses can be really tough to kill. They are hard to kill with heat, even with sanitizers like bleach. Washing your hands thoroughly and keeping things clean is the best way to prevent the spread of viruses.

Read more about the different kinds of illnesses here: 

So to answer the question….not all germs are bad. In fact, science tells us that ingesting some bacteria now and then helps to build a stronger immune system! I guess that saying “you gotta eat a pound of dirt before you die” wasn’t so far off. As long as you avoid pathogenic bacteria, and handle your food safely, you don’t have to be a germaphobe 🙂


About foodsleuth

I’m a food safety specialist with over 20 years’ experience of restaurant inspection experience. I dabble in writing too for fun. I love to cook (for my family and friends), to eat, and to critique restaurants (unprofessionally)!

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