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Bedbugs and bacteria: What’s lingering in your linens?

Marco / Zak/Flickr

When someone checks into a hospital or hotel, the last thing on their mind is the sheets they’re lying on. But those sheets have the potential to be deadly if they aren’t properly washed between patients or guests.

This week on Take Care, Dr. Philip Tierno, Clinical Professor in the Departments of Microbiology and Pathology at the NYU School of Medicine and author of "The Secret Life of Germs: Observations and Lessons from a Microbe Hunter" discusses what might be hiding out in the bedsheets of hospitals and hotels—and the impacts it could have on your health.

Communicable diseases lurk in every hospital, and patients’ immunity can be down. That’s why maintaining cleanliness in a hospital is so important.

“There are many bugs that are present, multi-drug resistant bugs that dwell in hospital environments,” Tierno said. “You need an active ingredient like bleach to sanitize those linens.”

Tierno says not to worry too much about the cleanliness of hospital sheets; they’re almost always subject to rigorous cleaning that involves hot water, detergent, and bleach. It’s other institutions, like hotels, whose sheets pose more of a threat.

“In a hospital, you’re more assured of a process being used that will effectively disinfect the linens in between patients,” Tierno said. “In a hotel, you’re subject to the vagaries of the institutional policies.”

But Tierno says it isn’t the cleaning that poses a problem; it’s the lack of a guarantee that you won’t be sleeping among the last occupant’s skin cells.

"You have to make sure that there is a change of sheets occurring between hotel guests,” Tierno said. “That’s more a likelihood that one should worry about than whether the sanitizing process is good enough.”

Tierno advises that anyone staying in a hotel thoroughly examine the bed before using it. He recommends inspecting the ribbing of the mattress for any traces of bedbugs, and utilizing smell as well as sight.

“The odor should be fresh and clean and you should not see any stains, Tierno said. “If you see debris that might be there that should not be there, and if it doesn’t smell clean or look clean, it likely is not clean.”

Of course, hospital and hotel linens aren’t part of the average person’s everyday life. So what advice is there for keeping your own linens clean? Tierno advises the same cleaning techniques that hospitals and hotels typically use; hot water with detergent and bleach.

Tierno advises paying special attention to the cleanliness of towels, which he says can very quickly become hosts to microorganisms and dust mites. He recommends letting towels dry unfurled between uses, as folding a damp towel can foster further growth of bacteria.

“There are organisms that are from your body that are brought into the towel itself,” Tierno said. “If you leave it in a damp environment or fold the towel and maintain the dampness, you can have growth of those organisms.”

Tierno advises using your towel for a maximum of three days before sending it to the wash. That way, he says, the towel is sanitized before bacteria counts have a chance to increase.