REMEMBER when you were a kid, skipping along the sidewalk, enjoying your favorite lollipop, then you drop it. Remember? First, surprise, then consternation. Then what? Right, you picked it up. You uttered your, “God bless the germs,” gave that lollipop a licking and kept on kicking, right? Of course.
As adults we call it the five-second rule. That is, if we pick up what hit the floor or whatever surface within in five seconds, no harm, no foul.
Well … a germ doctor begs to differ. “A dropped item is immediately contaminated and can’t really be sanitized,” asserts Jorge Parada, medical director of the Infection Prevention and Control Program at Chicago's Loyola University Health System. “When it comes to folklore, the ‘five-second rule’ should be replaced with ‘When in doubt, throw it out.’ ”
The mouth is not an effective cleaner for a pacifier that falls out of the mouth of a baby.
Obviously, this is shocking information for those who have subscribed to this myth their entire lives, but JP is sticking to his story. He won't budge one centimeter. The second a dropped item hits a surface it is contaminated.
Some food/items are more susceptible to contaminants, such as bacteria and microbes, than others; some surfaces harbor more contaminants than others.
“If you rinse off a dropped hot dog, you will probably greatly reduce the amount of contamination, but there will still be some amount of unwanted and potentially nonbeneficial bacteria on that hot dog,” he stresses.
Ditto for a potato chip that falls out of the bag/bowl onto the kitchen table. “So a potato chip dropped for a second on a rather clean table will both have little time to be contaminated and is likely to only pick up a miniscule amount of microbes – definitely a low risk,” says JP.
Sure, wash a dog that falls off the grill, but just know that you did not get every lick of germ off of it.
But a higher risk for rock candy or cheese that stays in contact with the same table or the floor (obviously) for a longer period, a minute for instance. Though left for the same amount of time as the rock candy, however, cheese would attract more contaminants, JP says.
“Maybe the dropped item only picks up 1,000 bacteria but typically the innoculum, or amount of bacteria that is needed for most people to actually get infected, is 10,000 bacteria. Well, then the odds are that no harm will occur.
"But what if you have a more sensitive system, or you pick up a bacteria with a lower infectious dose? Then you are rolling the dice with your health or that of your loved one.”
A potato chip that finds it way out of the bag and onto the table has a tad of bacterium on it, but it probably won't kill you.
Speaking of loved ones, cleaning off the baby's dropped pacifier with your mouth – and many parents and caregivers are guilty of this. Seriously?
“That is double dipping – you are exposing yourself to bacteria and you are adding your own bacteria to what first contaminated the dropped item. No one is spared anything with this move,” JP says.
As for the immune system building argument, JP manages not to scoff at the notion but dismisses it nevertheless. “There actually is certain research that supports the importance of being exposed to bacteria at critical times in a child’s development,” he notes.
“But I believe this development applies to exposures of everyday living. I do not advocate deliberately exposing ourselves to known contaminants. That would probably be a misplaced approach to building up our defenses.
What would you do with something that accidentally fell into the toilet?
"If you want to be proactive in building up your defenses, eat right, exercise and get adequate sleep – and remember to get your vaccines.”
And to put a final point on the subject, to brook no further argument, JP puts this whole germ-bacteria matter in some pretty stark language.
“I don’t think anyone would invoke the five-second rule if it fell in the toilet.”