Sanitize or Disinfect?

As a follow-up to our latest blog entry, H1N1- The 2009 Pandemic: Where Are We Now?  I was surprised to pick up the paper and see that a very serious disease is spreading right here in California. On June 24, 2010, an article in the San Jose Mercury News entitled Epidemic Endangers Children, reported on an outbreak of the disease known as Whooping cough, also called Pertussis, which has killed five infants across California since the beginning of the year. There have been 35 pertussis cases reported this year – more than four times the number reported by this time in 2009. Based on these statistics,  officials said California could be facing its worst outbreak of the disease in 50 years. Like many diseases, infants are more susceptible due to underdeveloped immune and respiratory systems.

 What drew my attention to this article was that young infants are being affected and also that they are defenseless to the spread of this disease. This led me to questions:   What exactly is the difference between a bacteria and a virus?  How do you go about cleaning to remove  these harmful germs and prevent infectious diseases? 

The difference between Viruses and Bacteria are listed below and are guidelines delivered by the U.S Food and Drug Association at

  • Viruses must have a living host to multiply whereas most bacteria can grow on non-living surfaces.
  • Viruses invade the host’s cells and turn the cell’s genetic material from its normal function to producing the virus itself.
  • Bacteria carry all the machinery needed to  grow and multiply, while Viruses carry mainly information – for example, DNA or RNA, packaged in a protein and/or membranous coat. Bacteria, on the other hand, harness the host cell’s machinery to reproduce. In a sense, Viruses are not truly “living,” but are essentially information (DNA or RNA) that float around until they encounter a suitable living host.
  • Examples of some viruses are smallpox, AIDS, HIV, and the flu.

Now you might be asking yourself…. How do I clean surfaces to rid myself of all these germs and harmful things….Is there a difference between sanitizing and disinfecting?

Disinfectants inhibit the growth of microorganisms like fungi (which you might know as mold, yeast, ringworm and many more), bacteria (such as nasal bacteria caused by sneezing, or throat bacteria caused by coughing), and viruses on non-living surfaces. Disinfectants can kill microorganisms and prevent or slow their return. A disinfectant is a chemical that completely destroys all organisms. These organisms are disease causing bacteria or pathogens.  From a legal standpoint, these disinfectants must reduce the level of pathogenic bacteria by 99.9% after a dwell time of between  5 and 10 minutes.

A sanitizer, in contrast, is a chemical that reduces the number of micro-organisms to a safe level. It does not need to eliminate 100% of organisms to be effective.  It can also be used on living surfaces, i.e. instant hand sanitizer products.

A couple of points in summary:  Cleaning and disinfecting of hard surfaces (especially touchpoints such as phones, computer mouse, doorknobs, etc.) is desirable.  Following the recommendation of the CDC to avoid the spread of disease by coughing into your sleeve rather than your hands which can spread germs on the way to wash them is another action we can all take to prevent the spread of disease.

It’s not just “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” anymore!  My advice is to keep your environment clean, eat a healthy diet, exercise and you will do your part to stay healthy and avoid the spread of disease that can be dangerous for our most vulnerable citizens.

 The information referred to can be found in these two sources:

Maher, Sean. “San Mateo County Officials Work to Stem Whooping Cough – San Jose Mercury News.” Home – San Jose Mercury News. 27 June 2010. Web. 29 June 2010. <>.

 Messinger, Eric. “Epidemic Endangers Children.” San Jose Mercury News 24 June 2010, Valley Final Edition ed., 103 Section B sec.: 1+. Print.