Bacteria are microscopic, single-celled organisms. They’re found all over the world and in many different environments — even within your body. In fact, it’s estimated that we have 10 times more bacterial cells in our body than human cells.

While most bacteria don’t cause illness in humans, there are some that do. These are called pathogenic bacteria. A few examples include:

You can lower your risk of becoming sick by taking steps to reduce your exposure to these types of bacteria. In fact, there are different ways to kill pathogenic bacteria in water, in food, or on a household surface.

Let’s take a closer look at what temperatures can kill bacteria, as well as other steps you can take to get rid of potentially harmful bacteria in your home.

Several types of disease-causing organisms can be present in water, including bacteria. Some examples of bacterial illnesses that you can get from contaminated water include:

Due to modern water treatment methods, this isn’t something that we often worry about. However, there are some circumstances in which bacteria can be present in water. These include scenarios where:

  • regular water service has been interrupted, due to a water line break or a natural disaster
  • you’re traveling and are unsure of the quality or safety of the water
  • water has been unsafely treated, handled, or stored

The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that bacteria are rapidly killed at temperatures above 149°F (65°C). This temperature is below that of boiling water or even a simmer.

In order to be sure that you’ve killed pathogenic bacteria that may be present in water, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following:

  1. If the water is cloudy, either let it settle or filter it through a coffee filter or clean piece of cloth before you boil it.
  2. Bring the water to a rolling boil. This is the point where the water is boiling very vigorously with lots of bubbles.
  3. Allow the water to boil like this for at least 1 minute.
  4. Remove the water from the heat source and allow it to cool down.
  5. Once the water has cooled, store it in a clean, tightly-secured container.

Additional tips for killing bacteria in water

If you don’t have ready access to a heat source, there are other things that you can do to kill bacteria in water. For example, you can use household bleach to disinfect water by following these steps:

  1. Select a regular, unscented chlorine bleach that’s less than 1 year old. Check the label to verify that it’s suitable for disinfection or sanitization and that the active ingredient is sodium hypochlorite.
  2. If the water is cloudy, allow it to settle or filter it using a coffee filter or clean cloth.
  3. Using a clean eyedropper, add an appropriate amount of bleach to the water. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a chart of how much to add based off of the volume of water and the concentration of your household bleach.
  4. Stir the water and allow it to sit for at least 30 minutes.

Water disinfection tablets are also commercially available. If you choose to use these, be sure to carefully follow the instructions provided on the product label.

Some types of bacteria can be a potential cause of food poisoning. It’s estimated that 1 in 6 Americans becomes ill with food poisoning every year. Some common foods associated with bacterial food poisoning include:

  • raw or undercooked poultry (Salmonella, Campylobacter)
  • raw or undercooked meats (E. coli, Salmonella)
  • raw or undercooked seafood and shellfish (Vibrio, Salmonella, Shigella)
  • fresh produce (E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria)
  • eggs (Salmonella)
  • unpasteurized dairy products (Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, Listeria)

There are several different ways that you can be exposed to pathogenic bacteria in or on foods. Some examples include:

  • eating meat, poultry, or fish that’s raw or undercooked
  • consuming fresh produce that hasn’t been washed
  • eating dairy products that haven’t been pasteurized
  • allowing perishable foods to sit out at room temperature for too long
  • not washing your hands before you handle or prepare food
  • cross-contamination, where bacteria from one food is transferred to another

Pathogenic bacteria grow quickly in food at temperatures between 40 to 140°F (5 to 60°C). In order to kill these bacteria, it’s important to cook all foods to a safe internal temperature.

The CDC lists the following temperature guidelines for several common types of food:

  • poultry, whole or ground: 165°F (74°C)
  • whole cuts of meat (beef, pork, lamb, or veal): 145°F (64°C)
  • ground meats: 160°F (71°C)
  • fresh ham: 145°F (64°C)
  • fish: 145°F (64°C) or until meat is opaque
  • leftovers or casseroles: 165°F (74°C)

Additional food safety tips

In addition to making sure that food is cooked to the proper temperature, the following strategies can also help reduce your risk of food poisoning:

  • Wash your hands. Be sure to wash your hands before and after preparing food, before eating, and after handling raw meats.
  • Separate. Keep raw meats or eggs separated from other foods to prevent cross-contamination. This includes storing them away from other foods in the refrigerator, and using a separate cutting board during food preparation.
  • Clean as you go. Make sure to clean any surfaces, containers, or utensils after every use, particularly if they’ve been in contact with raw meats.
  • Refrigerate. Promptly store any perishable foods or leftovers in the refrigerator. Don’t allow these food types to sit out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours.
  • Rinse produce. Be sure to thoroughly rinse any fresh produce before eating it or using the produce in a recipe.
  • Thaw safely: Be sure to thaw foods in the refrigerator or in the microwave. Thawing food on the countertop can promote the growth of bacteria.

Did you know?

Some bacteria can survive at very high temperatures. These types of bacteria are called thermopiles, which means “heat loving.”

Thermophiles are harmless to humans and grow best at temperatures between 113 to 176°F (45 to 80°C). They’re often found in hot springs and in hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean.

Healthline

In addition to using heat, there are a variety of other steps you can take to get rid of harmful bacteria in your home.

Killing bacteria on surfaces

Many surfaces in your home can also harbor pathogenic bacteria. This is particularly true of surfaces that you touch often.

Although using normal cleaning products can help reduce bacteria on household surfaces, disinfectants can kill them. Some examples of disinfectants that can kill bacteria on surfaces include:

  • products that contain alcohol, such as ethanol and isopropyl alcohol
  • household bleach
  • products that contain ammonium compounds

In order to disinfect surfaces in your home, follow the tips below:

  • Follow the product instructions. Each product will come with its own specific set of instructions, including how much to use, ideal contact time, and the appropriate surfaces to use the product on.
  • Wear gloves. Try to wear a pair of gloves while disinfecting. This is especially important if the product you’re using can cause skin irritation.
  • Check ventilation. Some disinfectants can produce strong fumes. Make sure the area you’re cleaning has good ventilation. If possible, open a window.
  • Focus on high-touch surfaces. Not every household surface needs to be disinfected. Think of the surfaces you touch often and focus on those. Some examples include countertops, faucet handles, doorknobs, light switches, and hand rails.
  • Pre-clean. If a surface has a lot of dirt and grime, clean it with soap and warm water or another household cleaning product before disinfecting the surface.
  • Don’t mix products. Some products can produce dangerous fumes when mixed together. One example of this is bleach and ammonia.
  • Be gentle with electronics. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions when cleaning surfaces like phone screens or TV screens. If no instructions are available, use an alcohol-based wipe or spray.

In addition to using disinfectants, opening your blinds may also reduce bacteria on household surfaces. A 2018 study found that sunlight exposure can reduce some types of bacteria found in household dust.

Killing bacteria on fabrics

It’s also possible for bacteria to be present on fabrics, such as clothes, towels, and bed linens. Generally speaking, washing and drying these fabrics as you normally would can help reduce or eliminate bacteria on these items.

However, some items are at a higher risk for spreading illness. Some examples include:

  • healthcare workers’ uniforms
  • towels or cloths used while preparing food
  • shared bath towels
  • clothes worn while playing sports
  • fabrics that have been in contact with an open wound or have been soiled with vomit or feces

To wash high-risk fabrics, do the following:

  1. Clean these fabrics separately from your normal laundry. Always wash your hands after handling them.
  2. For the wash cycle, use hot water —140°F (60°C) — and a bleach-based laundry product.
  3. After the wash cycle, promptly tumble dry the fabrics. A 2014 study found that tumble drying after a high temperature wash was important for reducing bacteria on laundry.

Viruses are tiny microbes that are even smaller than bacteria. On the most basic level, they’re made up of RNA or DNA that’s enclosed in a protein shell. Some viruses may also be surrounded by a membrane called an envelope.

Viruses are parasites. They need to invade a host cell in order to replicate. Like bacteria, they can cause disease in humans. Some examples of viral illnesses that you may be familiar with include:

Generally speaking, many viruses are sensitive to environmental factors like temperature and humidity. Some only survive outside of the human body for a matter of hours or days, although others can remain viable for weeks.

You can eliminate viruses from your home in much the same way as bacteria or other germs. This includes:

  • disinfecting household surfaces
  • boiling water if necessary
  • cooking foods to the proper temperature

While most bacteria are harmless, some can cause disease in humans. These bacteria are referred to as pathogenic.

Temperature is one of the ways you can kill pathogenic bacteria in your home. You can do this by:

  • boiling water that may be contaminated with bacteria and other microbes
  • being sure to cook foods to a safe internal temperature
  • washing high-risk fabrics on a hot cycle and promptly tumble drying

Disinfectants are another way to kill bacteria in your home. For example, you can use disinfectant products or bleach on common household surfaces. When using disinfectants, always carefully follow the product instructions.