Boogeyman and Bacteria: Where Are the Real Monsters Hiding?

October 30, 2019

Boogeyman and Bacteria: Where Are the Real Monsters Hiding?

With Halloween right around the corner, our minds naturally turn to all things scary. Our favorite horror movies have taught us how to identify and avoid many potentially dangerous situations. For example, we know that we should always steer clear of the haunted-looking house, turn on the lights before entering a dark room, and avoid opening the mirrored medicine cabinet at all costs (unless you like jump scares). However, most of us don’t realize that these fictional frights pale in comparison to the actual health dangers that we come in contact with daily.

In Schools

During one of the early scenes of the classic horror movie Halloween, heroine Laurie Strode looks out of her classroom window and sees a masked man standing outside. When she does a double-take, the man has disappeared, leaving Laurie to wonder if she really saw a boogeyman or was she just imagining.

What Laurie didn’t realize were the real threats to her health that she faced everyday from bacteria and other pathogens.  And unlike that masked man, these threats can’t be seen with the naked eye. These villains also have much longer names than Michael or Jason: Enterovirus, Streptococcus, Conjunctivitis, Influenzae, and many others.

Enterovirus is actually a genus of viruses associated with several diseases commonly found in schools, such as hand-foot-and-mouth disease and aseptic meningitis, while streptococcus is a genus of bacteria that can cause strep throat, scarlet fever, and impetigo. Children are at higher risk because their immune systems haven’t developed fully, and they tend to wash their hands less than adults.  The diseases can be spread easily from student to student if proper precautions aren’t taken. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend that parents and education staff “Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs, especially if someone is sick.”1

In Hospitals and Healthcare Facilities

Abdominal cramping, constant diarrhea, and projectile vomiting. Swollen skin full of pus or other drainage. For Regan McNeil in The Exorcist, these were symptoms of demonic possession. For the rest of us, these could be signs of something much more serious, especially if we’re patients in a healthcare facility. One of the places where people are most vulnerable to illness happens to be the very place they go to for healing: the hospital. Healthcare acquired infections (HAIs) are infections that patients get while receiving treatment for other health issues. Because patients in healthcare settings often already have compromised immune systems, they can be more susceptible to severe infections from bacteria such as Clostridium difficile and MRSA.

Practicing good hand hygiene is critical in preventing cross-contamination and the spread of HAIs. Also, because MRSA can survive on surfaces for hours, days, or even weeks2, correctly cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that frequently contact skin is important. Many of these surfaces are overlooked (light switches, chair arms, etc.), so compliance to disinfecting protocols becomes important, too.  

In Hotels, Motels, and Lodging Facilities

Health threats can lurk anywhere, even in cozy family-owned motels, as secretary Marion Crane discovers in Psycho. Motels and hotels can be hotbeds of bacteria and viruses due to their purpose of temporarily housing large numbers of people. Where people are, infections are usually there, too, which means both guests and staff can be exposed to potential pathogens. 

One of the ways infections are spread is the contact of infected people with the items in their room: bedding, flooring, remote controls, bathroom counters. If these items aren’t cleaned and disinfected properly, the next guest could acquire influenza, Rotavirus, Norovirus, and more3. Hotel staff members responsible for cleaning, disinfecting, and preparing rooms could also acquire these infections. As in healthcare settings, compliance to correct cleaning and disinfecting protocols is a key factor in successful infection prevention.  

In Commercial Kitchens

The beautiful Overlook Hotel in the Rocky Mountains offers many amenities and services, and its large kitchen is built accommodate orders of all sizes. It shouldn’t, however, accommodate bacteria, biofilm, and pathogens. Salmonella and E. coli are two that often make the news due to outbreaks. Mishandled food is often the culprit, but staph, strep, etc. can spread from hand-to-hand or hand-to-food contact.

Bacteria can also be spread from food and hands to other surfaces they contact. Potential contamination sources in a kitchen include countertops, dishrags, gadgets, and appliances.4 A study done in 2018 revealed that reusable kitchen towels can contribute to cross-contamination, especially when used by multiple people and/or as a multipurpose cloth.5 If staff are lax in their approach to cleaning and disinfecting their kitchens, the results can be less than Shining to the health of staff and patrons alike.  

Stay Safe Out There

One of the great things about scary movies is that monsters disappear after the credits start rolling. Not so for bacteria, viruses, and pathogens. They are always with us and can be particularly harmful in the environments mentioned above. However, simple hygiene practices, such as consistent hand washing and proper cleaning, can go a long way in minimizing the threat to good health.