How to Degerm a Hotel Room

Leery of what might be lurking on that bedspread? You probably should be. Microbiologist Philip M. Tierno, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology at the New York University School of Medicine, in New York City, helps fend off the filth. (Warning: This is not for the faint of heart.)

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What should be in our suitcase to help handle germs?
Pack a travel-size Lysol disinfectant spray, some alcohol (or disinfecting) wipes, slippers, and a clear plastic bag.

OK, we've stepped into the hotel room. What's first?
Wash your hands. You've probably turned a doorknob, pushed an elevator button, and handled money. Up to 80 percent of infections are transmitted by hands—and tons of people have touched that doorknob, elevator button, and cash—so it's important to eliminate any potential pathogens on your hands before you contaminate everything else in the room. Don't eat, drink, or touch your face until you've washed up.

Then what?
Inspect the room, starting with the bathroom, which is the biggest source of germs. With a tissue, lift the toilet seat and spray both sides of the seat with Lysol, even if it looks spotless. Wash glasses or mugs with hand soap and hot water if they're not sealed in a wrapper, and leave them open-side up to dry. The same goes for ice buckets without plastic liners. Next, use alcohol wipes on frequently touched hot spots: faucets, the toilet lever, doorknobs, light switches, the phone, the clock radio. Don't bother trying to clean the crevices of the remote control. Instead slide it into a clear plastic bag. Use it this way during your stay, inside its protective cover.

And the bed?
Don't sit or place any belongings on the bed until you're sure it's parasite-free. Peel back the fitted sheet and examine the mattress for bedbugs or signs of them. Alert management right away if you spot dried blood stains, tiny white eggs, or bedbug skin or shells, which are often transparent or pale yellow. You probably won't catch a norovirus (the stomach virus that recently plagued cruise ships) from the bedding, but it may be full of allergens or just plain dirty. If there's a bedspread, put it away in a corner. It's unlikely to have been washed or changed recently. (Leave a note for housekeeping to not make the bed with the bedspread during your stay.) A duvet tends to be safer, but keep the top sheet between you and the cover and fold the sheet over the edge so your chin is protected.

Any other areas to avoid?
Hands off the drapes. They trap a lot of debris and allergens, and the germs build up over time. Also limit direct skin contact with the carpet and furniture so you don't pick up any potential fungus. That means wear socks or slippers and be fully clothed when sitting on chairs or the sofa.

What should you do before bathing?
Before a shower, squirt shampoo in the tub and run the water on hot for a minute to decrease the number of germs where you'll be standing, even if the bottom of the tub looks clean. As long as you don't have abrasions on your feet, it's not likely that you'll contract something. If you have a cut on your foot, though, bandage it and wear flip-flops. As for taking a bath, you may want to skip that entirely due to biofilm, a nearly undetectable layer of bacteria that sticks to tubs and other surfaces. It comes off only with vigorous scrubbing with a hard-bristle brush and soap.

What's the worst illness you can contract from hotel-room germs?
You could catch anything from a norovirus to a cold to a staph skin infection. Most of the time, you'll walk away completely fine. It all depends on what germs the previous guests left behind and how well the room was cleaned.

How can you make sure that the room you're booking is clean?
People think a higher-end hotel guarantees cleanliness, but that's not always the case. There can be housekeeping staffers who cut corners in any hotel. The best thing you can do is read lodging reviews online. Specific feedback and photos from former guests are more helpful than star ratings; if other customers experienced dirty sheets or a grimy tub, you may encounter the same during your stay.