HAMILTON, Ont. — It may be time to develop computer hygiene to prevent germ-infested keyboards from making you sick.
Several studies have shown keyboards to be dirtier than the average toilet seat.
The problem is aggravated when hospital staff share a computer keyboard or when numerous people use the same computer at the library or even at home.
Earlier this month, msnbc.com reported researchers even found food poisoning bacteria on keyboards.
A U.K. consumer organization study two years ago found keyboards five times dirtier than the average toilet seat. And tests at a Chicago hospital in 2005 found bacteria including VRE and MRSA living on the keys for 24 hours.
A December episode of Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters found keyboards to be the fourth worst everyday item tested that was dirtier than toilet seats — after kitchen sponges, money and light switches.
When Mythbusters had Berkeley University students perform tests, keyboards came in third worst.
People can buy silicone and other keyboard covers or moulded keyboards that are easily wiped clean. But Hamilton microbiologist Dr. Cheryl Main says the simplest way to avoid picking up bacteria from a keyboard is to wash your hands.
The same applies to other everyday items like cellphones and doorknobs.
“Our hands are the single best way to transmit bacteria,” she said. “You’re limited on how clean you can get your keyboard, so more important is hand washing.”
But Florida’s Compucover president James Garrett said, “It just doesn’t happen.”
People don’t wash their hands after using a keyboard and they never clean their keyboards, he says. His company, one of several selling keyboard covers, has 20 per cent of its customers in Canada, including hospitals and dental officers, he says.
Another option is to clean and disinfect your keyboard regularly, especially if it has multiple users.
Durham Region’s Jacqueline Miller has a part-time business cleaning and disinfecting computers. She once spent four days doing that at a Burlington company. Business slowed during the recession although it picked up again with the prevalence of the H1N1 flu virus last fall, she says.
But she agrees hand hygiene is very important, and so is a thorough keyboard cleaning. Running disinfecting wipes over the keys once in a while won’t work.
“If there’s any grime buildup, it (the disinfectant) won’t go through,” Miller said.
Similar concerns have been raised about cellphones.
British microbiologist and Manchester University professor Joanna Verran says cellphones carry more germs than doorknobs, the soles of shoes and toilet seats.
“Our phones are perfect for the breeding of these germs as they’re often kept warm and cosy in our pockets, handbags and brief cases,” she says.
Microbiologist Main, an infectious diseases specialist for Hamilton Health Sciences and associate McMaster University professor, suggested people should at least apply hand sanitizer after using keyboards — “especially if you go to have lunch or a cup of coffee.”
The most common way bacteria infects someone is when they rub their eyes, she says.
“Eyes are a good entry point for bacteria and viruses because it gets in so easily. It’s probably the No. 1 way you get sick.”
Michelle Baird, Hamilton public health infectious disease and control manager, says people should try not to put their hands to their faces, try not to eat at their computers. And if they are ill, they should call in sick.
She also suggests washing your hands before you eat.
In hospitals, infectious control staff should ensure keyboards are properly cleaned since they already have patients with compromised immune systems.
Main says people should be careful with any items on which bacteria accumulates.
“You can prevent bacteria from getting into your body by being conscious of what you do with your hands,” she said.