PhotoHere's a factoid we're pretty sure you don't want to even think about; the toothbrush you shove in your mouth each morning may be crawling with germs.

Nasty little things like staphylococci, coliforms, pseudomonads, yeasts, intestinal bacteria and — yes — even fecal germs. How do they get there?

“The oral cavity is home to hundreds of different types of microorganisms, which can be transferred to a toothbrush during use,” said Maria L. Geisinger, DDS, assistant professor of periodontology in the School of Dentistry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).

Making matters worse, most toothbrushes are stored in bathrooms, which exposes them to gastrointestinal microorganisms that may be transferred via a fecal-oral route. One only has to recall a scene from a Seinfeld episode when germ-a-phobe Jerry knocks his girlfriend's toothbrush into the toilet.

“The number of microorganisms can vary wildly from undetectable to 1 million colony-forming units, Geisinger said. “Proper handling and care of your toothbrush is important to your overall health.”

How it happens

But can bacteria from the toilet actually reach your toothbrush? Geisinger says it can and the toothbrush doesn't actually have to fall into the toilet. It can happen if you don't adequately wash your hands or through microscopic droplets released from the toilet during flushing.

The Discovery Channel program “Mythbusters” recently explored the cleanliness of the average toothbrush and found all 24 that it tested contained intestinal microorganisms. Geisinger says toothbrushes may even be contaminated right out of the box since they aren't packaged in a sterile environment.

You can reduce the number of germs on your toothbrush by proper cleaning and storage. After each use thoroughly rinse toothbrushes with clean tap water to remove any remaining toothpaste and debris.

Antibacterial rinse helps

If you're really serious about germs, you can soak toothbrushes in an antibacterial mouth rinse; this has been shown to decrease the level of bacteria that grow on toothbrushes. Next, the way you store your toothbrush between brushing makes a difference.

“The American Dental Association recommends that you not store your toothbrush in a closed container or routinely cover your toothbrush, as a damp environment is more conducive to the growth of microorganisms,” Geisinger said.

Storing toothbrushes in an upright position, allowing them to dry, is also preferable to storing them in a horizontal position. It's also a good idea to keep brushes separate, preventing cross-contamination, if multiple brushes are stored in one location.

Cold germs

How about when you're sick with a cold or the flu? Do those germs remain on the brush you used while you were ill?

In fact, they do. Geisinger says the toothbrush used by a sick person should be kept a safe distance from other toothbrushes and, if economically feasible, should be discarded and replaced with a new one.

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