"Don't touch that remote!" is a popular request (or demand) in many households as TV viewers wrestle for the right to watch "their" show. So it's understandable that, quite often, the remote has lots of fingers on it.

What you may not think about is how all those fingers can make the germs pile up. Before long, that remote is crawling with bacteria, viruses and other organisms capable of giving you colds, infections and other nasty stuff. When you travel, the remotes at hotels may be even filthier.

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"It's one of the germiest things in the home and in the hotel room," says Chuck Gerba, PhD, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson, who has made a career of studying where germs lurk and telling us how to stay healthy in spite of them.

In testing 14 hotel room remotes, Gerba and his team found about a third were contaminated with fecal bacteria. That wasn't so surprising, but about a fifth had traces of semen, he says. This made him think twice about using the remote in a hotel room. "I just go up to the TV and turn it on." 

In another study, presented at a microbiology meeting in 2012, researchers sampled three hotel rooms in each of three states (Texas, Indiana and South Carolina) and found the remote has one of the highest levels of bacterial contamination of anything in the room — more germs, in fact, than the bathroom door handle.

Part of the problem, experts say, is the design of most remotes. The raised buttons attract grit and germs. And what's one of the first things you and other family members do when a cold or flu strikes? Grab the remote and head to the couch or bed for a little comfort viewing. And even in the cleanest houses, the remote is often overlooked on cleaning day.

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What to do, short of giving up TV

Clean properly. Regular cleaning of the remote can help. Cleaning experts suggest gathering a microfiber cloth, a solution of 50/50 rubbing alcohol/water, a toothbrush to clean with and a cotton swab. Remove the batteries. Use the toothbrush to get rid of debris. Next, mist the cloth with the alcohol solution and work your way down the remote. Mist the swab and use it to get into crevices. Be careful not to get the swab or cloth too wet, just slightly damp. Dry the remote and replace the batteries.

Buy wisely. In another study, Gerba and his team looked at different types of remotes to see if those with a flat surface were cleaner to begin with and had fewer germs after cleaning than conventional remotes with raised buttons. They looked at four types, measured the bacteria on each, cleaned each the same way (with disinfection wipes) and then measured the bacteria again. The flat design had less bacteria. A flat remote known as Clean Remote (which funded part of the study) is marketed to hospitals and hotels, but a consumer version, Smooth Touch, is sold online.

Travel smart. If you're traveling and don't want the hassle of bringing cleaning supplies, you can adopt Gerba's strategy of bypassing the remote. He contends that the TV on-off buttons are much less germy, as they're little used compared to the remote. Another option is to bring an extra plastic bag in your luggage. If you take a larger size bag, about 10 inches by 10 inches, you can be sure it will cover the remote. Slip the bag over the remote and your fingers will never make contact with the germs. It’s a little clumsy, but you won't ruin your trip by getting sick. 

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Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles journalist specializing in health, behavior and fitness topics.