Don't Panic: Showerhead Germs Won't Kill You (Or Make You Sick)

First came the news that the average computer keyboard was five times as filthy as a toilet seat. Then came the reports that flip-flops played host to more than 18,000 bacteria. Now, after you've stocked up on Purell and started wearing closed-toe shoes—even on the beach—there's a new report soon to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documenting the billions of microbes lurking in your shower, the last clean place on earth. What are we supposed to do now? Stop by CVS on the way home and purchase a lifetime's supply of spray body cleaner? Hardly. Though these studies are captivating in their disgustingness, the microbes living on your daily possessions don't do much to compromise your health.

The latest panic-inducing study, conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder and released today, looked at 45 showerheads from across the United States. The researchers found that each showerhead was home to, on average, several billion microbes per square centimeter—pretty gross considering that tap water usually contains 90 percent less bacteria per liter. About half of particles that come out of a showerhead are sufficiently small to penetrate the deep airways, say study authors, meaning that each supposedly cleansing breath we take while showering could be full of foreign microbes.

Don't let yourself get too sucked in by the visual that suggests, though. If you're otherwise healthy, chances are that a grody showerhead won't be your downfall. In fact, very few people have probably ever died of—or gotten sick from—showerhead microbes. As the report notes, we move through a "sea of microbial life" in our daily lives, so most of us don't need to give up showering just yet. Norman Pace, the author of the study, says that only those with suppressed immune systems should opt for a bubble bath. "The most frequently asked question is, 'Is it dangerous to take a shower?'" Pace says. "No, it's not dangerous."

So if these germs aren't really a big deal, why do they continue to fascinate us? Every year, it's something—if not keyboards and flip-flops, it's sponges or wedding rings. These studies are gross, and mostly inconsequential—the sponge and wedding-ring industrial complexes have yet to collapse—but they still capture the public attention, including a disproportionate amount of this reporter's time. Reading article after article on all the microbes invading my personal space actually gives me a sick sense of pleasure. And, according Jeff Szymanski, the executive director of the International OCD foundation, I'm not alone.

People get a rush from the illusory sense of security they feel when reading up on the latest threat, Szymanski says. The more information we can get our hands on, the more certain we feel. If we learn about the dangers, then we can figure out a plan of attack. "Each story is like a new fad diet," he says. In Szymanski's view, there's a marketing program in the media that equates good people with clean people. "The way to stay safe is to stay clean," Szymanski says the media tells us. But, as Szymanski reminds all us masochistic germophobes out there, death will eventually catch up to us, no matter how much money we spend on Lysol and Purell.

Until that happens, though, we just keep reading these gross-out studies. In fact, Pace said that he wasn't prepared for all the media requests flooding his office. Good news for journalists: Pace conducted the study as part of a much larger project on the microbiology of the indoors, and he's certainly ready to fuel our germophobia for the next few years with even more studies on the germ content of common indoor areas.

For Pace, all the world's a microbe. "I'm surprised any of us live as long as we do," he said.

"Should I risk getting out of bed tomorrow?" I asked.

"You probably have a higher probability of getting knocked off from getting out of bed in the morning than taking a single shower," he said. Still, my next shower might be a little bit shorter—just in case.

For an up close and yuck look at micro-bugs that really do pose a threat, see our quiz, 'When Viruses Attack'

Don't Panic: Showerhead Germs Won't Kill You (Or Make You Sick) | News