Vail Daily column: Avoiding germs on the road | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Avoiding germs on the road

Butch Mazzuca
Butch Mazzuca |

Many years ago, actually make that many, many years ago, while serving in Vietnam I had an experience that left an indelible impression on me. No, it’s not what you might imagine.

Of course I had a few colorful experiences, but being a helicopter pilot was still far preferable to being in the infantry where privations were commonplace. In fact, compared to the grunts traveling around the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam, we lived like kings.

We lived in hooches (sandbagged Quonset huts), a few of which even had sinks with running water. We had access to hot showers (most of the time) and flush toilets (again, most of the time.) Not only that, but as officers we hired local Vietnamese women make our beds and hand-wash our laundry, all for $15 per month.

It was that one day after returning from a mission I walked into my hooch and found my maid Kim (I think 90 percent of all hooch-maids were named Kim) brushing her teeth — with my toothbrush!

Now before you say, “Yuck!” allow me to paint a more detailed picture: Many Vietnamese women, especially the older ones like Kim (my guess is she was about 40 years old) chewed a mild narcotic that was colloquially known as betel nut.

Aside from being a stimulant, betel nut had another unique characteristic — it stained the user’s teeth jet black and their gums a grotesque reddish-brown.

Needless to say, I asked Kim to refrain from using my toothbrush in the future but allowed her to keep the toothbrush she had been using. And just to make certain it never happened again, I wrote home and asked my family to send me a dozen toothbrushes and several tubes of toothpaste so I could give them to her as well.

The aforementioned experience occurred in a combat zone where less than sanitary situations and conditions are to be expected. But what about here in the U.S.? Just how sanitary do you think your average hotel or motel room is, and what do hotel maids do to maintain a modicum of cleanliness?

In recent studies of hotels and motels across the country, it’s been found that even with regular cleaning, hotel rooms harbor dark secrets, i.e., they are often swarming with old skin cells, E. coli and unidentified bodily fluids. To the untrained eye your average hotel room may appear to be clean but just because we don’t see the germs doesn’t mean they’re not there.

The reality is that hotel cleaning practices hide some dirty little surprises, which can be found in your sheets, on your pillows, across the bathroom counter, on the TV remote — actually, pretty much everywhere.

So what should you be looking for?

The primary health hazards are water glasses made of glass, remote controls, light switches, faucets and perhaps the most unnerving of all, the bedding.

Dirt, mold and germs not only hide out in dark, unseen crevices such as air conditioning vents, but also can be found out in the open. Studies have shown that hotel room remote controls are breeding grounds for thousands of bacteria such as E. coli, staph and the highly contagious MRSA, along with other dangerous germs.

Studies have also uncovered some nasty things under the covers including bed bugs, nail clippings, hair, fluffed-but-not-changed pillows and scores of unidentified fluids. Upon even closer examination it’s been discovered that a not uncommon practice is to clean drinking glasses with toxic chemicals such as window cleaner and in many cases maids clean glasses while wearing the same gloves they wore while scrubbing the toilets just moments before.

Countertops and taps are also breeding grounds for bacteria — sort of like a petri dish to welcome unsuspecting guests. But perhaps most disquieting is that fact that hidden cameras have caught poorly trained maids on video using the same towel throughout the cleaning process, i.e., sinks, toilets, glasses, countertops, faucets, etc. — and this practice is far more common than one might think. (I’ll bet my betel nut chewing Kim doesn’t seem so bad now does she?)

Now that I have your attention there are ways to protect yourself.

• When traveling by car, consider bringing your own pillows and pillowcases.

• Grab the washcloth from the bathroom, squirt some antibacterial hand sanitizer on it and wipe down all the trouble areas like light switches, TV remotes, door handles, phones, clock radios, taps and toilet seats.

• Use a sanitized hand towel to cover the bathroom countertop before placing your toiletries on the counter, and whenever possible, take those hotel throw pillows and throw them on the floor (where they’ve spent most of their lives anyway.)

• Consider purchasing bedbug spray and “travel sheets,” both of which can be found online.

• And lastly, before lying down on the hotel’s bedspread, give some thought to the number of suitcases that have been dragged across countless airport bathroom floors and then placed on the very bedspread where you’re thinking of putting your face.

Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at bmazz68@comcast.net.