Street clothes in bed: gross or okay?

Going to bed in your street clothes? What hygiene experts say about it
Photo: Zacharie Scheurer/dpa-tmn

Opinions are divided on the question of whether you can go to bed wearing street clothes. Is it gross or OK? That’s what two hygiene experts say.

The number that has been circulating in some online media sounds worrying: at least 72 colonies of bacteria and viruses are said to accumulate on skin and clothing over the course of a day. That seems like a lot – and dangerous. That’s why some families have a rule: never go to bed in your street clothes!

Prof. Johannes Knobloch, however, is relaxed about this question. The specialist in microbiology, virology and infectious disease epidemiology says: “I haven’t counted. But one thing is clear: when I come back to my own home environment from outside, I will always bring something with me that wasn’t there before.”

Street clothes on the bed: germs behave differently

Whether these germs can be dangerous to us at all depends on many factors. Firstly, on our own state of health. Secondly, on the lifespan of the bacteria and viruses. This also includes how well they can survive under less than optimal conditions.

“There are huge differences between viruses,” says Knobloch, who heads hospital hygiene at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf. So-called enveloped viruses – influenza or coronaviruses, for example – have a very short survival time on surfaces. “If I don’t pick them up directly from there and bring them onto my own mucous membranes, there will be no further infection when I get back home.”

Non-enveloped viruses behave differently. For example, noroviruses, which cause vomiting and diarrhea: Even if you get just a few on your fingers and then put your hand in your mouth, transmission can easily occur.

“But not through clothing!”, Knobloch clarifies. The same applies to respiratory infections: You would have to touch your face a lot or come into contact with your eyes.

Street clothes in bed: risk of infection is manageable

But when could our street clothes actually become dangerous to us – and what role does the bed or sofa play in this? For the hygiene expert, these are very theoretical cases. Of course, nothing is impossible.

For example, someone with purulent skin pustules is sitting on the bus and scratches themselves and then touches the seats and fittings. It is possible that one of the next passengers touches these exact spots and takes the pathogen home with them – to bed.

“Then it cannot be ruled out that such a Staphylococcus aureus will even multiply a little. And if I then have a small scratch, then I could actually get an infection with the pathogen,” says Johannes Knobloch.

However, “they do not reproduce at all on the dry surface.” The risk is therefore “very manageable” in this case too.

It depends on your own sense of cleanliness

Bonn-based infectious disease specialist Peter Walger can also reassure people: For healthy patients, clothing plays “virtually no role” as a means of transmitting diseases in the home environment.

That’s why there are no rules about how to behave at home. The answer to the question “Street clothes on the bed – yes or no?” depends primarily on your own sense of cleanliness and hygiene.

And the spectrum is wide, as Walger, board member of the German Society for Hospital Hygiene, observes. “Some are extremely fussy and change their bed linen more often than every two weeks. Some put a bedspread on the bed, and others don’t care at all.”

Who should wash their bed linen more often

But there are exceptions, people who should be a little more strict about hygiene at home. For example, people with open wounds, neurodermatitis, chronic eczema or poorly controlled diabetes mellitus.

“Their skin can be heavily colonized by germs, which under certain circumstances can develop into a risk of infection, for example during an operation or injury,” says Peter Walger.

These patients should remember to protect themselves and others – for example by following particularly strict hygiene and cleanliness rules in the home.

For such high-risk patients, it is important, for example, to wash clothes and bed linen more frequently – individual items even at a minimum of 60 degrees. “Immediately afterwards, there are almost no germs left that could pose a risk,” says Walger.

There is no such thing as zero risk

Germs can also cause problems for allergy sufferers – for example, if they sit on a park bench. This is because it can be full of bacteria and fungal spores that we can absorb on our clothes and carry home. “It doesn’t necessarily make me sick, but if I’m allergic and bring a lot of them with me, it might actually not be good if I breathe them in all the time at night,” says Knobloch.

His conclusion: “You can’t say there is no danger at all from germs on clothing – but it is very manageable.” Ultimately, there is no activity that is associated with zero risk. “Anyone who doesn’t want to expose themselves to any danger at all would have to lock themselves in their apartment for the rest of their life.”

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