- Holidays mean the arrival of friends and family. But a new study finds that dangerous bacteria can be widely spread at home.
- MRSA and other bacteria can be found on multiple surfaces in the home, according to a new study.
- Here’s what you can do to protect yourself.
The holiday season is in full swing — and for many people, that means travel, visitors, and a break from regular routines.
Spending time with your loved ones can have many potential benefits for your well-being. But it can also expose you to viruses and bacteria that they might be carrying.
Once those pathogens are introduced to your home, they can spread from one household member to another. According to new research published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, some pathogens may even be transmitted through contaminated household surfaces.
When the authors of the new study tracked the household transmission of Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus), they found that nearly three-quarters of people tested positive for at least one strain of the staph bacteria over the course of a year. Nearly half of people were carrying methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA), a type of staph that’s resistant to many antibiotics.
The authors of the study also found that S. aureus was present on household surfaces in 91 percent of homes. MRSA, in particular, was found on surfaces in 69 percent of homes.
“The household environment plays a key role in the transmission of MRSA in the community setting,” Dr. Stephanie A. Fritz, associate professor of pediatrics in the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Washington University, said in a press release.
“This suggests that aggressive attempts to rid MRSA from household surfaces may significantly lower the number of MRSA infectious we’re seeing now,” she added.
S. aureus is present on many people’s skin and usually doesn’t cause serious problems. But if these bacteria enter the body, they can cause potentially life threatening infections.
To conduct their investigation, the authors of the new study investigated the homes of 150 children who had been treated for MRSA infections in metropolitan St. Louis, Missouri, between 2012 and 2015.
They visited each child’s home five times over the course of a year.
During each home visit, they collected swab samples from the children and other members of their households, including a total of 692 people, plus 154 cats and dogs.
They also swabbed household surfaces, such as door handles, sink faucets, countertops, bed sheets, bath towels, light switches, telephones, and television and videogame controllers.
They found 3,819 samples of S. aureus bacteria in total. Using molecular analysis, they identified the specific strain of each sample and tracked its transmission throughout the home.
“By parsing it out, we were able to determine different risk factors for how the staph germ gets into the house and then, once there, how it is spread,” Fitz said.
They found that roughly half of the people who tested positive for S. aureus picked the bacteria up from someone or something else in their home.
To identify factors that might promote or limit the spread of staph bacteria, Fitz’s team asked participants to complete a questionnaire about their hygiene and personal habits.
They found that people who washed their hands frequently with soap or hand sanitizer were less likely than others to bring staph into their homes.
Showering instead of bathing, brushing teeth at least twice a day, and using antibacterial liquid hand soap also appeared to have protective effects.
Household transmission of staph bacteria was more common in rented and crowded homes, messy homes, and homes where people shared bedrooms, beds, towels, or hygiene items.
Research suggests that staph infections may be more common during warm months of the year.
However, many other infections are common in winter — including the flu.
“It’s well known that respiratory infections, particularly influenza, are spread very abundantly during the holiday season, in part because of all the travel that we do,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Healthline.
Washing your hands regularly can also help stop the spread of flu and other contagious diseases, Schaffner continued. Not sharing personal hygiene items is important, too.
“So the first thing I would say is, if you haven’t been vaccinated against influenza, run — do not walk — and get vaccinated today,” he advised.
Another strategy for staying healthy is limiting the amount of time you spend with people who are sick. If you’re the one who’s under the weather, try to keep a safe distance from others — particularly infants, older adults, and people who have health conditions that weaken their immune systems.
Practicing these strategies might help you strike a healthy balance between limiting the spread of illness and enjoying the holiday season.
“I do believe in getting the flu shot, I do believe in washing hands, I do believe in being extra vigilant around people who may have a weakened immune system,” Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease specialist at Northwell Health, told Healthline.
“I think the health benefits of being together, of hugging and loving family members, is also very important,” he continued. “And we shouldn’t lose sight of that, even as we evaluate some of the health risks.”