Germ warfare: Are we going over the top in our quest for cleanliness?

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (MCT) — Courtney Bash is “obsessed” with antibacterial gel, which she carries in her purse, her computer bag, “every bag I have.”

At pizza places, she’ll touch the Parmesan and pepper shakers only with a napkin, because “all those kids touch that, and they probably lick the top of it.” Shaking hands? “I think it should be outlawed.”

Friends and family consider her a little extreme when it comes to germ-fighting, “but that’s just because they’re filthy,” said Bash, 32, of Kansas City, Mo. “Just kidding.”

For Kati Vanderhagen, it was a stay in a grimy hotel 20 years ago that made her realize “just how filthy places are.” These days she refuses to drink from a water fountain, even if she’s extremely thirsty. She tries to avoid public restrooms. At the gym, “If I don’t like the way somebody sprayed (a piece of equipment) down, I can do it again.”

And then there are restaurants.

“Have you seen what they clean tables with? The nastiest, dirtiest rags you’ve ever seen in your life.” She conceded that’s not true of every eatery. Still, “If my food touches the table, I don’t eat it, and if my silverware touches the table, I ask for clean silverware,” said Vanderhagen, 49, of Merriam.

Not everyone takes it as far as these women, but chances are, you’re more germ-conscious than you used to be. Do you use your foot to flush public toilets? Do salad bars gross you out because of all those hands on the tongs? Do you keep a list in your head of friends or co-workers who don’t wash up after going to the restroom? Do you Lysol your keyboard if someone with a cold as much as looks at it?

Well, good news. Maybe.

Granted, the people familiar with your germus operandi may be muttering “OCD” under their breath, but an expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention understands our collective germ phobia — or, as he put it, our “interest in infections.”

We’re often jammed together in airplanes and elevators. Some of us, such as babies and elderly people, are susceptible to infections. And there are the scary headlines about bird flu and E. coli tacos. Given all that, worries about germs are “a rational reaction to some of what we see,” said Michael Bell. He’s associate director for infection control at the CDC in Atlanta.

Infectious diseases have always been with us, Bell said. There’s always been a risk of getting sick from tainted food or water, always the possibility of catching something from other people or animals.

But a lot has changed for the better. In the Civil War a soldier with an infected wound was likely to lose a limb or die. Now, we expect that antibiotics will defeat any infection. We expect clean drinking water. And there’ve been many improvements in “our hygiene infrastructure” the last couple of centuries, Bell said.

Yet we fret about germs.

This is fine with Bell, who said that as a society, we’d perhaps become a little too blase, “a little distanced from the realities of infectious diseases.”

So, actually, those of us engaged in daily germ warfare — we who use tissues to touch door handles or make guests remove their shoes — might represent “a fairly reasonable return to normal thinking,” Bell said.

But keep in mind that not all germs (a catch-all term for bacteria, viruses, fungi) are bad, and in any case you can’t escape them, no matter how much Purell you slather on.

“Germs are everywhere,” said Alan Salkind, a professor of medicine in the infectious diseases section at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine. “They’re in the air we breathe. They’re in the water we drink. They’re on the surfaces we touch. We share an environment with germs.”

Your mouth, for example, is swarming with bacteria, hundreds and hundreds of microscopic living organisms. And to think you kiss your mother with that mouth.

But that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

“There’s that balance between the (body’s) healthy state and the germs,” Salkind said. “They kind of coexist together.”

Overall, our bodies are well equipped to fight bad germs. As we’re exposed to them, we build up immunities to them. Even Kati Vanderhagen recognized that. “If you become too germ-phobic, you’re going to end up having no antibodies and you will get sick,” she said.

Someone who’s overly concerned about not touching certain things might have OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Generally, the “determining mark” of whether there’s a problem is when someone’s germ phobia starts interfering with their day-to-day life, said Michael Blair, a psychologist at Crittenton Children’s Center in Kansas City.

Salkind urges common sense: “If you touch something dirty, wash your hands.”

And yes, children are terrific conduits of germs. Still, Salkind said, “Are you going to tell your kid he can’t go over to Johnny’s to play because Johnny doesn’t have antimicrobial toys?”

Courtney Bash will have to confront that issue one of these days. She and husband Andrew have a 1-year-old son, and for now she tries hard to keep him away from germs. At the supermarket, for instance, “I wipe down everything that he or I might touch,” especially the grocery cart.

What’s Mommy going to do once he starts school?

“Counseling?” she asked, laughing. “I don’t know. I’ll just have to stomach it.”