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Just How Germ-Infested are the Hotel Rooms You Stay In? What are the Risks?

Many Americans will spend the night in a hotel room 10 to 20 times a year, and some, particularly those who travel for business, many more. While the last thing you want to think about when you check into your home-away-from-home is what might be lurking on the sheets, the bedspread, the shower stall or the desk chair, a new study has found that it deserves some attention.

hotel room secrets dirty

ABC News investigators found traces of urine or semen in every hotel room they tested.

Viruses Remain After Guests Check-Out

University of Virginia researchers decided to find out whether rhinoviruses, the type of virus responsible for about half of all colds, remain in hotel rooms after their host leaves.

"We know that viruses can survive on surfaces for a long time -- more than four days," said Dr. Birgit Winther, a University of Virginia ear, nose and throat specialist who led the study.

For the study, 15 people with rhinovirus colds each spent the night in a hotel room. After they left, 10 items they had touched were tested for the rhinovirus, and one-third were found to be contaminated. Specifically, the virus was found on:

  • Seven out of 14 door handles

  • Six of 14 pens

  • Six out of 15 light switches, TV remotes and faucets

  • Five of 15 phones

  • Shower curtains, coffee makers and alarm clocks

"We were surprised to find so many," Winther said.

It's worth mentioning that the samples were taken before the rooms were cleaned, so hotels' disinfecting processes may remove some of the contaminants before a new guest checks in.

"We do wipe everything down, from the remote control to the telephone," said Michelle Pike, corporate director of housekeeping for Hilton brand hotels.

The study concluded several months later when five of the 15 participants visited hotel rooms that had been deliberately contaminated with their own mucus (which had been frozen while they had their colds). Their hands were then tested for viruses, which turned up on 60 percent of contacts in rooms where the mucus had dried for at least an hour, and on 33 percent of those in rooms where the mucus had dried overnight.

Bedbugs, Dried Semen and Urine

A separate study by ABC News Primetime also uncovered some things you probably don't want to know about in hotel rooms. The team visited 20 well-known hotels in New York, Miami, Houston and Los Angeles, and used a black light to determine how clean the rooms were.

bedspread hotel

Always remove the bedspread before lounging on a hotel room bed -- they're usually not cleaned in between guests.

At every hotel they visited, from a one-star hotel with rates at $55 a night to a five-star hotel with rooms that cost $400 a night, lab results showed evidence of urine or semen in every room tested. Bed bugs have also turned up at even high-level hotels. Some specifics:

  • Dried semen on the bedspread and urine stains on the walls of a $300-a-night room in "one of New York's finest hotels."

  • Trails of urine on the bedroom carpeting in a well-known Miami hotel.

  • Traces of urine on the walls, bedspread, chairs, bathroom vanity stool and carpeting near the bed at a four-star resort.

"There's a lot going on behind those doors," said Dr. Mark Callahan, a physician at New York Presbyterian Hospital. "And the reality is that the hotels are not going to be wiping down the walls and those surfaces."

Is Staying in a Hotel Room Risky?

Though the thought of leftover viruses, urine and other unmentionables in your hotel room is disgusting, most experts say the risks of actually getting sick from hotel germs is pretty low.

Still, 80 percent of infections are spread by someone touching a germ-infested surface, or getting germ particles from a sneeze, cough or touch onto their hands.

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"Whether germs are viral, bacterial, or fungal, some can remain active on most surfaces for several days -- no matter whether the surface is stainless steel, wood, plastic, or even the paper in a magazine," says Elaine Jong, MD, co-director of the University of Washington Travel Clinic in Seattle.

And while most hotels do lighter cleaning like dusting, vacuuming and disinfecting daily, in reality, most hotels only do "deep" cleaning four times a year, on average, which means there's a good chance some germs may be left behind by the cleaning people.

What can you do to minimize your risks and stay as germ-free as possible while staying in a hotel? Plenty.

  1. Wash your hands regularly and often. This is particularly important before eating, touching your mouth, eyes, nose or face, and after you've been out.

  2. Choose rooms that cost over $50 a night. Although the ABC News study found contaminants in rooms of all price ranges, University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD, who's also known as "Dr. Germ," believes spending a little more may pay off.

    "I did a study about seven years that found if you paid more than $50 a night, there was a much greater chance that the room was regularly disinfected. Rooms under $50 weren't."

  3. Take off the bedspread. The bedspread is usually full of contaminants, as it's often not cleaned in between guests.

  4. Pack your own sheets. If you're concerned about what may be on the hotel sheets, just bring your own. Alternatively, sleep in long-sleeved, long pants pajamas and check the hotel sheets for rust-colored stains, which may be a sign of bedbugs.

  5. Carry with you, and use, sanitizing wipes. We like the PerfectClean terry cloths and super silk cloths, which have an ultramicrofiber construction that enables them to reach deep into microscopic crevices to actually remove microscopic dirt and bacteria. Use them to wipe down surfaces that may contain germs, such as the TV remote control, light switches, bathroom faucet, and coffee maker handle.

  6. Ask for an allergy-free room. Some hotels have rooms that keep dust mites, allergens, and perhaps other germs, to a minimum. Other hotels have "allergy packs" that provide the guest with special pillows and mattress covers (which may be cleaner than the regular variety).

  7. Pack rubber thongs (flip-flops) or slippers. Wear them at all times in the hotel room, rather than walking barefoot.

Recommended Reading

The Five Key Areas of Illness-Causing Germs & Toxins in Your Home

The Nine Grossest Things Other People Do That Can Make You Sick

Sources September 29, 2006

ABC News: What's Hiding in Your Hotel Room? Germs are Everywhere -- Really

Reader's Digest

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