Fomites can spread germs. What is a fomite?

Germs can spread from inanimate objects to people, causing illness

Right now there’s a good chance that if you’re reading this, you’re reading it using a fomite.

What, pray tell, is a fomite?

Basically, a fomite is an inanimate object that can harbor germs (re: disease agents). Fomites can be just about anything: clothing, towels, books, toys, a faucet, a door handle, a computer keyboard, a copier button, an ink pen, and, yes, even a cellphone.

Fomites can then transmit diseases when you touch them, said Dr. Saghana Chakrabortty with Bon Secours’ Town Center Medical Associates in Virginia Beach.

Saghana Chakrabortty, MD, is a family practice physician with Bon Secours’ Town Center Medical Associates in Virginia Beach (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Bon Secours)
Dr. Saghana Chakrabortty is a family practice physician with Bon Secours’ Town Center Medical Associates in Virginia Beach (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Bon Secours)

“A fomite may harbor germs from the skin, oral or nasal secretions, feces, urine, vomit, other body fluids and/or blood of a person or an animal,” Chakrabortty said. “These germs may survive for hours to weeks or months, depending on the type of organism and the environment of the fomite.”

Moisture and organic material in the fomite will help the germs survive even longer, he said.

Everyone knows that colds and influenza are spread via the respiratory system, when a person coughs or sneezes. The droplets are released into the air and sometimes onto a surface – or onto an inanimate object that lots of people touch or use.

Besides the cold and flu viruses, other nasty things can end up on a fomite. Things like E.coli, conjunctivitis, impetigo, meningitis, and more.

“Avoiding contact with any inanimate object that may have come into contact with disease-causing germs is probably the best way to avoid getting sick from a fomite. However, that is a difficult task,” he said.

Fomites are inanimate objects that can harbor germs and spread illness. How many fomites do you see in this photo? (Rami Yoakum/Southside Daily)
Fomites are inanimate objects that can harbor germs and spread illness. How many fomites do you see in this photo? (Rami Yoakum/Southside Daily)

Cleaning objects thoroughly with approved cleaners; washing clothes, bedcoverings and towels often; and cleaning surfaces frequently are a few ways to address potential fomites.

Perhaps the easiest and most effective way to avoid getting sick via a fomite is by not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth after touching or handling one, and by regular and thorough hand washing, Chakrabortty said.

“It is important to maintain good hand hygiene by washing hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water,” Chakrabortty said. “Unfortunately, some germs are difficult to remove completely. Vigilance is important when there is any question about contact with a bad bug.”

He said that Norovirus on a surface is a good example. The virus is resistant to standard cleaning agents and requires a mix of diluted bleach and water, or other, stronger, EPA-approved disinfectant.

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