Transmission of Disease Through Clothing
July 30, 2013 3:30 PM   Subscribe

Details aren't necessary except for sometimes when I have to sort clothes to be cleaned, I run into other people's garments that are soiled in some way. What's the likelihood that I am going to pick up anything unwanted as far as blood/fluid borne disease or any other nasties? My hands do not have any obvious sores or anything like that. This doesn't happen often and I thought I would ask here before I get too obsessive with my hand washing or badgering my doctor. Yes, I realize you may not be a doctor. Thanks in advance.
posted by Fukiyama to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What kind of population is this—hospital or nursing facility? You definitely can pick up staph infections (including MRSA) from contact with contaminated clothing or towels from someone with an active infection, and dryers don't always get hot enough to eliminate the bacteria. Gloves are in order if you suspect someone whose garments you process has such an infection.
posted by limeonaire at 3:38 PM on July 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Shouldn't you just wear gloves then?
posted by ryanbryan at 3:45 PM on July 30, 2013 [7 favorites]

Keep in mind the skin on different parts of your body have different microbiomes, so any foreign bacteria will have to compete with what's already living on you. Some bacteria are better at this than others, like the aforementioned Staphylococcus or Streptococcus, and they have an easier time infecting people with challenged immune systems (like some patients in a hospital, or older people in a nursing facility).

That said, anything you touch can go inside your system through your mouth, if you don't wash your hands. This is how hospitals get norovirus outbreaks or have patients come back home with chronic C. difficile infections, for instance. Norovirus is pretty easy to spread, too — just ten or so virus particles are enough to make one sick. This is why you see hand sanitizer dispensers outside hospital rooms.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:47 PM on July 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

If your goal is to freak out, read these two papers,
A Point-Source Norovirus Outbreak Caused by Exposure to Fomites
We investigated a norovirus outbreak (genotype GII.2) affecting 9 members of a soccer team. Illness was associated with touching a reusable grocery bag or consuming its packaged food contents (risk difference, 0.636; P lt .01). By polymerase chain reaction, GII norovirus was recovered from the bag, which had been stored in a bathroom used before the outbreak by a person with norovirus-like illness. Airborne contamination of fomites can lead to subsequent point-source outbreaks. When feasible, we recommend dedicated bathrooms for sick persons and informing cleaning staff (professional or otherwise) about the need for adequate environmental sanitation of surfaces and fomites to prevent spread.

Recurring Norovirus Transmission on an Airplane
Previously reported outbreaks of norovirus gastroenteritis associated with aircraft have been limited to transmission during a single flight sector. During October 2009, an outbreak of diarrhea and vomiting occurred among different groups of flight attendants who had worked on separate flight sectors on the same airplane. We investigated the cause of the outbreak and whether the illnesses were attributable to work on the airplane. Information was obtained from flight attendants on demographic characteristics, symptoms, and possible transmission risk factors. Case patients were defined as flight attendants with diarrhea or vomiting lt 51 hours after the end of their first flight sector on the airplane during 13–18 October 2009. Stool samples were tested for norovirus RNA. A passenger had vomited on the Boeing 777-200 airplane on the 13 October flight sector. Sixty-three (82%) of 77 flight attendants who worked on the airplane during 13–18 October provided information, and 27 (43%) met the case definition. The attack rate among flight attendants decreased significantly over successive flight sectors from 13 October onward (P lt .001). Working as a supervisor was independently associated with development of illness (adjusted odds ratio, 5.8; 95% confidence interval, 1.3–25.6). Norovirus genotype GI.6 was detected in stool samples from 2 case patients who worked on different flight sectors. Sustained transmission of norovirus is likely to have occurred because of exposures on this airplane during successive flight sectors. Airlines should make provision for adequate disinfection of airplanes with use of products effective against norovirus and other common infectious agents after vomiting has occurred.
Depending on the population my largest concern would be fecal-oral pathogens, which can be addressed with proper glove use, a set of work clothes that you don't wear while eating, and proper handwashing.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:48 PM on July 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Small pox and typhus (gaol fever) would seem to be things to be concerned about.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:51 PM on July 30, 2013

In addition to gloves, you may want to consider a smock to cover your street clothes so that you don't recontaminate yourself by touching your dirty clothes after washing up.
posted by quince at 3:59 PM on July 30, 2013

You can definitely get sick from other people's clothing - I use gloves if I have to handle the clothes of anyone else (especially kids or anyone who's sick.) I've also been known to use tongs, if gloves weren't available. I know that the donation centers around here have their workers wear gloves when handling clothing; they also wear plastic smocks like quince was talking about. Dinner-lady quality - very inexpensive.

It's always best to wash your hands after any kind of cleaning-related activity anyway, BTW - if the germs don't get you, it's the chemicals used to clean the whatever it is you're cleaning.

Blasdelb, do you have an alert set up to let you know whenever someone has asked a question that could provide you a chance to share really scary bio/chem scholarly papers? Because I don't think I have ever managed to see one of these questions before you've already answered it with several disturbing links.
posted by SMPA at 4:04 PM on July 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Most dry cloth is a bad environment for bacteria or viruses, though clothes that are obviously soiled might be providing a home. You might be getting exposed to the eggs or spores of things that cause a lot of itching (pinworms, scabies, lice nits). Wear gloves, and a smock or big apron is a fine idea.
posted by theora55 at 4:07 PM on July 30, 2013

My advice is anecdotal.

For the past 15 years I have provided direct services for people who soil their clothes ALOT. I always wear gloves and I wash my hands a bunch. I've never taken any other precautions aside from making sure to roll bedding and soiled clothes away from my body and to not carry soiled items against my body.

I've never contracted anything. Not even pink eye. Do get vaccinated for Hepatitis if that's an option for you. People who do my kind of work are offered this vaccination free upon hire everywhere I've ever worked.

So my advice is:
gloves, wash your hands, don't carry soiled items against your clothing, and get vaccinated for Hep.

Personally, I don't worry about it too much.
posted by dchrssyr at 4:38 PM on July 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Uh, small pox? You definitely do not need to be worried about small pox.
posted by florencetnoa at 5:18 PM on July 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Transmission of disease from inanimate surfaces/objects is called "fomite transmission" and it's a real risk. This is a good opportunity to entrench the twin habits of keeping your hands away from your face as much as possible and washing your hands before you touch your face, food, or fork.

I agree with Blasdelb, though, you should be wearing gloves and keeping your work clothes separate from the clothes you eat in. (I think you should, if you can, change into and out of your work clothes at work, because theora55 also has a point - you don't want to expose scabies and other parasites if you can avoid it.)

All that said, before I was an epidemiologist, I worked a student job at a gym, where I washed many many fusty towels, and although I washed my hands a lot (A LOT)(ye gods, the things people do with gym towels), I didn't take any other precautions and I didn't catch anything. I also changed beds, in my nursing days, and other than wearing gloves and scrubs and washing my hands, if the patient wasn't in contact precautions I didn't take other precautions and I didn't catch anything then, either. Well, nothing that I could be sure wasn't directly from the patients.
posted by gingerest at 6:35 PM on July 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

On the off-chance that you may need to clean the pants of someone who has used their pants as a bathroom and does not own their own washing machine, I would be habitually wearing gloves. That way, bad stuff wouldn't get on my hands and I could eat pizza after work without worrying so much. Wear gloves for the pizza.
posted by oceanjesse at 10:44 PM on July 30, 2013

(Change the gloves and wash your hands between the pants and the pizza.)
posted by gingerest at 12:26 AM on July 31, 2013

"Wear gloves for the pizza" meaning "Allow yourself the opportunity to enjoy the pizza with reduced health risk when you are finished with laundry and glove removal and hand washing and hand drying because you can't do all of those things if you weren't wearing gloves in the first place so how would you take off the gloves if you weren't wearing any."
posted by oceanjesse at 9:34 AM on August 1, 2013

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