Ah, the casual, comfortable flip-flop: A symbol of summertime, an emblem of relaxation — and a harbinger of death?
OK, well, that may be overstating it a little bit — but not by too terribly much, health experts say.
TODAY, with the help of the University of Miami emergency mobile flip-flop lab, tested some footwear and found that there were more than 18,000 bacteria on just one pair of flip-flops. Even more shocking than the number of germs were the types represented — bacteria from fecal matter, skin and respiratory germs. One pair of 6-year-old flip-flops had germs that cause yeast infection and diaper rash.
The New York Daily News recently tested two pairs of flip-flops as well, ones that traipsed through bars in New York’s West Village, plodded through Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, rode the F, A, C, G, 2 and 3 subway trains, attended a Brooklyn Cyclones game in Coney Island and rode the Cyclone roller coaster. One pair wandered into the Coney Island subway station’s public restroom.
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They found that the shoes that flopped their way into that public restroom harbored about 13,900 more bacteria than the other pair.
Presence of a deadly germ
Most disturbing of all, the flip-flops provided shelter to the potentially lethal germ Staphylococcus aureus. That’s serious, said Dr. Philip M. Tierno Jr., director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. He said the presence of this germ can be especially problematic if you have an open cut or blister on your foot, or if you handle your flip-flops a lot with your hands.
“That particular organism can give you a serious infection like a boil, or more serious, it could possess toxins,” Tierno told TODAY. “They can make you very sick or kill you.”
Tierno — also known as “Dr. Germ” — pointed out that if such shoes were worn for three months over the course of an entire summer, 93 percent of them would have fecal bacteria on them and 20 percent of them would have E. coli.
“These bacteria detected indicate obviously that feces, urine, spit, vomit, animal droppings were all present,” Tierno told TODAY. “That is what’s on the streets of a big city and in public bathrooms ... Think about what’s on the ground we walk on in New York City. There’s rat-doo and cockroaches, and they’re harbingers of all sorts of germs."
Dr. Lisa Plano, a microbiologist at the University of Miami, agreed with Tierno’s assessment of the dangers of germs on flip-flops, but said this knowledge shouldn’t inspire utter panic in flip-flop owners.
“As long as your skin is intact, as long as you use common sense and don’t knowingly expose yourself ... you shouldn’t be alarmed,” she said. “Even though those nasty things are out there, those nasty things have always been out there — we just haven’t always been looking for them.”
So armed with information like this, what’s a fan of casual footwear to do? Tierno said to avoid touching your flip-flops and your unwashed feet as much as possible.
“That’s what you do when you’re wearing these types of shoes — you’re adjusting it often for comfort, since they flop around,” Tierno said. “They are thin and you handle it more than a regular shoe to slip it over your toe.”
To help combat such exposure, you can wash your hands often and remove your shoes before you walk around your home.
You also could consider reserving those flip-flops as part of your beach or poolside attire only, Tierno said.
“I’m not saying don’t ever wear them,” he said. “They are nice for the beach and the pool and perhaps even in your home. ... My thought is they should be worn temporarily. There is a place for them.”
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints