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When someone in your family has had a cold or the flu, do you scrub everything in sight and throw every item in the sick person's room into the laundry?

Give yourself a break.

"Parents will say, 'I bleached the house from top to bottom,' but I think that's overdoing it," says pediatrician Alanna Levine, MD, of Tappan, N.Y. "Focus on items that really matter: shared spaces and frequently touched surfaces."

How to Disinfect

Disinfecting should be part of your usual cleaning routine, whether or not anyone at home is sick.

Check the label to make sure the disinfectant works against the viruses you're targeting, such as cold and flu viruses, says Philip Geis, PhD. He is a microbiology professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

When you use disinfectant sprays, paper towels are better than sponges, but disposable disinfectant wipes have an advantage.  

"Sponges and dishcloths just tend to spread things around," says Chuck Gerba, PhD. He is a microbiology professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

"With paper towels, you spray, wipe, and remove [the disinfectant spray]. But when you use a disinfectant wipe, people wipe the surface and let it dry, which gives it more time to kill the organisms. It leaves some residual impact," Gerba says. Some of his past research was funded by Clorox.

7 Things to Disinfect

Think about the items you touch a lot. Things people share are more likely to spread germs, says Elizabeth Scott, PhD. She is co-director of Boston's Simmons Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community.

Focus on these items after someone has had a cold or the flu:

  1. Your phone. Eighty percent of phones in homes that have a child with the flu have the flu virus on them, according to Gerba's research. That can include cell phones and land lines. "Cold and flu viruses survive on them, anywhere from a few hours to a few days," Gerba says.
  1. The remote control. It's one of the most touched -- and least cleaned -- items in your house. "If a child sneezes into her hand and touches the remote, the germs can get on the remote," Levine says.
  1. The bathroom. Half of all bathroom faucets test positive for cold and flu viruses when someone has a cold or flu, Gerba says. "Those tend to get contaminated because your hand goes right there." Give the sick person their own hand towel, to avoid spreading disease through a shared towel, Levine says. Don’t reuse wipe (i.e. don’t wipe toilet and then sink).
  1. Tables. Kitchen tables, coffee tables, play-area tables, and night tables tend to host cold and flu viruses, because they're touched often and aren't wiped down enough, Gerba says.
  1. Computers. Check the maker's instructions before cleaning. You may be able to wipe keyboards or screens with an alcohol wipe or a paper towel sprayed with disinfectant.
  1. Stuffed animals. If possible, toss Teddy in the laundry. If it's not washable, keep it away from everyone for a few days to let viruses on its surface die.
  1. Sheets, blankets, towels. "These should be washed at high temperature with a color-safe bleach detergent," Scott says. Wash your hands after handling them.

Also, everyone in your home should wash their hands more often when someone is sick. Soap and water or hand sanitizers work well, Gerba says.

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