It's a given that the subway is gross, what with the potent urine aroma and the countless pizza rats scurrying around the tracks. But to New Yorkers, the grossness of the subway is something we just accept and move past. How can we not? It’s not like we’re going to stop riding it anytime soon considering it’s the cheapest and easiest way to get around. Basically, we have no choice but to stay numb.
Here’s what we can’t stay numb to, though: getting sick. Subways are jam packed with germs, thanks to the hoards of people hopping on and off of them daily. But aside from awkward eye contact, what can you really catch while riding the subway?
We spoke with Joe Rubino, Director of Microbiology at RB (the makers of Lysol, nbd!) to find out just what exactly you’re at risk of catching, and how to avoid it all. Godspeed.
What it is: Cough, runny nose, and all around feeling-like-crap syndrome
How likely it is you’ll get it: They don’t call it the “common cold” for nothing. “We know that colds and flu are certainly going to be a major part of this," Rubino says. "People who have these symptoms are more often up and about, not in bed.”
Where you’ll get it: Subway poles
How you can avoid it: “I try to never touch the poles. If I have to, I try to find a place where people don’t touch it as much -- like up high or something. Or I wrap my elbow around it. In the winter time, you have gloves, so keep those on. The one thing about microorganisms that can cause diseases is they tend not to survive as well on fabric and soft surfaces as they do on hard surfaces. So the likelihood of it surviving on a glove is far less.”
What it is: Staphylococcus bacteria that live on your skin, in your mouth, and in your nasal secretions (that’s a fancy term for snot).
How likely it is you’ll get it: Less likely than a cold, but not at all out of the question. “This is a considerable problem rooting to skin disorders, and they can survive on these surfaces," says Rubino. "Your hands are touching everything, and you don’t know where those hands touched before. Whatever they touched, you’re touching now.”
Where you’ll get it: Subway seats, doors, poles. Anywhere your exposed skin can touch, basically.
How you can avoid it: “The best way to always protect yourself is wash your hands -- but hand sanitizer is your next best option. As soon as you get a chance to wash your hands, do it. In the meantime, try to avoid putting your hands on your face, nose, ears, or mouth so nothing spreads.”
What it is: Influenza (fever, runny nose, cough, sore throat pain, fatigue)
How likely it is you’ll get it: Very. “This would be my biggest concern -- it’s probably the worst thing you can pick up while riding the subway.”
Where you’ll get it: ANYWHERE! Rubino says, “The flu can be spread through the air, but you have to be within a few feet of this person to catch it.” Hey, good thing people on the subway are usually so far away from each other, right? Rubino also notes, “There have been studies done in airplanes about people picking this up easily because of the re-circulated air, and there is less air exchange on a subway. The good thing is you’re generally not on the subway long enough to get airborne transmission. However, since so many people are touching the same objects, it’s more likely to leave the flu behind and therefore get it from touch than air. For instance, if I have the flu, and I contaminate my hands, and I touch an object even for a moment or two, I’ve still left the virus behind. The exposure time doesn't have to be all that long.”
How you can avoid it: “Someone who looks like they have a cold, or runny nose... stay away from them and definitely don’t sit next to them. Also try not to eat until you’ve washed your hands. If you just got off the subway, and you're not somewhere you can wash your hands (like a food cart), try to hold the food in a barrier of sorts -- like in a napkin -- because it’s likely your hands have been contaminated.” Just don’t take up multiple seats -- there are rules of etiquette to keep in mind.
Gastrointestinal disease (namely, vomiting and diarrhea)
What it is: Fecal matter/particles that you ingest. By the way, fecal matter is poop; this is also what can potentially cause pink eye.
How likely it is you’ll get it: Pretty damn likely. “People very often don’t wash their hands after using the toilet. There was a study done in UK where they swabbed the hands of commuters, and found that about 25-28% had fecal bacteria on their hands. The sample size was around 400 people or so. These are bacteria that are associated with feces. That means even they touched something along the line, like raw food, or they didn't wash their hands after using the toilet, or touched something in a public restroom somebody else touched. Point is, there are a variety of ways you can pick this up other than someone's poor hygiene. But nonetheless, those same people are getting onto the subway, where other people can come along and touch it," Rubino warns.
Where you’ll get it: On the subway seats
How you can avoid it: “If you're sitting on the subway, you don’t know what’s on the other side of, well, people’s underparts. Try not to touch the seat. Put your hands on your pocket, fold them in your lap, but just try not to touch the seat.”
Before you start freaking out, don’t. Even Joe Rubino says you’ll probably be okay.
“These are illnesses, that for the most part, you aren't going to die from them,” he reassures. “But you certainly want to take precautions and be aware, because you can get sick for a few days, miss work because of them, and your child could get sick. I look at it as more of a quality of life thing -- you don't want to pick up a virus on a Wednesday while riding the subway, then be sick all weekend."
Amen to that.
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Liz Newman is a freelance writer for Thrillist, and will now be walking everywhere. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @lizn813.