7 overlooked but harmful health habits to avoid

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published April 22, 2020

Key Takeaways

Every once in a while, we all practice bad habits that, for the most part, don’t seriously endanger our health. Pulling all-nighters to sift through the mountain of EHRs, skimping on sleep between shifts, skipping meals between seeing patients—all minor transgressions that, independently and occasionally, don’t pose much of a health risk. But, certain little bad habits can lead to more poor lifestyle behaviors over the long term, and they can increase the risk for dangerous health complications. 

Here’s a look at seven overlooked, but potentially harmful, health habits to avoid.

Bonding with Fido—and not washing your hands afterward 

According to the American Pet Products Association, most US households (67%) own a pet, with over 60 million US households boasting dog ownership. Plenty of research has shown that dogs improve the health of their owners in various ways, including the promotion of exercise, increased longevity, and improved heart health and mental well-being.

While dogs can enrich our lives, they can also expose us to dangerous pathogens—such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Campylobacter jejuni—thus increasing the risk of potentially deadly infections and diseases, including septicemia and rabies. Washing your hands after petting your dog or handling their toys or food (as pathogens may also be transmitted via dog saliva and waste) is the best way to reduce, if not eliminate, the risk of zoonotic disease from your pet, according to the CDC and other health experts. 

Sharing and 'borrowing' meds

The terms medication “sharing” or “borrowing” are misnomers. These medications are likely never to be replaced in any way. One person simply gives medication—whether prescribed or over the counter—to another without the input of a physician. And, according to the results of a systematic review, the practice is particularly widespread among prescription medication users. In an analysis of 19 studies from 9 countries involving a total of 36,182 participants, ranging in age from children to older adults, the reported prevalence rates of taking prescription medication from another person was 5% to 51.9%, and for giving prescription medication, 6% to 22.9%. 

But, as you know, doing so is incredibly dangerous. Without proper medical guidance, your patients’ medication sharing habits could result in addiction, gradual resistance to efficacy, as well as serious health complications or death from allergic reaction, adverse drug side effects, adverse drug-drug interactions, or inaccurate treatment (ie, taking the wrong meds to treat a specific illness). 

“Studies that examined the types of medicines shared found pain medications, allergy medications, and antibiotics to be the most commonly shared classes of medicines. In light of the addictive potential of some pain medications, the possibility of adverse reactions from allergy medications, and the development of bacterial resistance associated with uncontrolled use of antibiotics, health care providers should take proactive measures to limit the sharing of these medicines,” wrote the authors.

“Sharing of medicines with high teratogenic potential, such as isotretinoin (a US Food and Drug Administration category X drug), observed among women of child-bearing age, carries a risk of birth defects, particularly if women do not inform their health care provider about their borrowing practices,” they added.

Licking the spoon

Some of your fondest childhood memories may be of licking the batter-covered spatula while making chocolate chip cookies with your family. But, at the risk of sounding like a buzzkill, doing so could be harmful to your health. While the practice isn’t dangerous to others—pathogens from your mouth won’t survive the high heats of cooking—it is to the licker.

In recent years, flour, eggs, and frozen vegetables have all been recalled for contamination with Salmonella, Escherichia coli (E. coli), and Listeria bacteria. On further examination, manufacturers have found low levels of these pathogens either in the field (ie, kitchen) or during processing. These bugs are remarkably resilient and find their way into raw ingredients and ingredient mixes used by consumers. When improperly mixed and handled, then the risk for infection is magnified.

Double dipping

Dip your chip in a communal bowl of salsa and take a bite. You now have a whole lot of chip left—but no salsa to cover it. Annoying! You may be tempted to double dip—especially if no one is around to scowl—but the practice is highly unhygienic.

Results from a small study published in the Journal of Food Safety, for instance, found that crackers bitten before being dipped into salsa, chocolate sauce, or cheese—as one might expect—had higher bacterial concentration than those that weren’t bitten and dipped. To make matters worse, salsa had the highest immediate bacterial transfer.

“The practical application of these results to food safety will be similar to studies on hand washing. It is clear that foodborne disease can be spread by both practices (double‐dipping and improper hand washing), and showing this is true using controlled studies may change the behavior of some people of the time,” the authors wrote. 

“But like hand washing, a no double‐dip policy will not prevent the practice nor prevent the spread of disease. By determining that the bad practice of double‐dipping does in fact transfer oral bacteria to a food dip, the practice may be reduced, subsequently reducing the spread of harmful microorganisms to some degree,” the authors concluded.

Sharing toothbrushes

However uncouth, sharing a toothbrush is a remarkably common occurrence, at least according to a survey conducted by the Oral Health Foundation and Philips out of the United Kingdom. About a quarter of those polled (26%) reported their willingness to share their toothbrush with another person, with significantly more men (32%) amenable to the gesture than women (20%).

Although sharing a toothbrush with a loved one may seem like an extension of intimacy, it’s more likely a predictor of disease. The mouth is home to more than 700 types of bacteria, with any person harboring 200 or more types, as well as fungi and viruses. To boot, wet toothbrushes are ideal surfaces for mold growth.

Common harmful bacteria found in the mouth include Porphyromonas gingivalis and Treponema denticola, which both play a role in gum disease. Streptococcus mutans, which is linked to tooth decay, can also make its way onto a toothbrush. Even scarier, HIV and hepatitis B virus have also been known to hop onto the head of a toothbrush, making for potentially deadly cargo.

Sharing and reusing razor blades

Like toothbrushes, couples may also share or reuse razor blades. But, used razor blades can serve as vectors for the transmission of all types of pathogens. Case in point: Researchers of one Turkish study used PCR to identify the presence of hepatitis B virus on used razor blades (n = 151), and they found that 6.6% of used razor blades harbored the virus.

“[U]sed razor blades may be contaminated with [hepatitis B virus], and the practice of sharing used razor blades may pose a risk of transmission,” noted the authors.

Handling money without sanitizing

The fibrous surfaces of money offer the perfect scaffolding for various nasty pathogens. Lower-denomination bills, which are circulated more frequently, are at higher risk of picking up nasty bacteria. Thus, washing your hands after touching money is imperative to reduce the risk of disease.

But if that isn’t reason enough for you to wash your hands, consider this: Researchers at New York University’s Dirty Money Project found about 3,000 microbes on dollar bills—including dermal bacteria, vaginal bacteria, and oral microbes—with many demonstrating antibiotic resistance.

Similarly, Turkish and Dutch researchers who examined a variety of international currencies found MRSA, vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus, and extended-spectrum beta-lactamases–producing E. coli present on the surfaces of bills.

As far as coins and newer polymer-constructed currencies go, here’s what the authors of one study found: 

“Smooth, polymer surfaces provide a poor means of adherence and survival, while coarser and more fibrous surfaces provide strong bacterial adherence and an environment to survive on. Coins were found to be strongly inhibitory to bacteria with a relatively rapid decline in survival on almost all coin surfaces tested. The inhibitory influence of coins was demonstrated through the use of antimicrobial disks made from coins. Despite the toxic effects of coins on many bacteria, bacteria do have the ability to adapt to the presence of coins in their environment which goes some way to explain the persistent presence of low levels of bacteria on coins in circulation.”

While current events have taught us to be more vigilant in adhering to good hygiene practices when it comes to our interactions with others, it’s important to be cognizant of smaller, more personal bad habits that we may succumb to in our everyday lives. As physicians, you know that even the smallest lifestyle habits can make or break an individual’s health. After all, as we’ve seen in recent days, it only takes one opportunistic pathogen to ruin your health. 

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