NEW YORK -- Next time you enter a new hotel room, you might think twice before touching the light switch or reaching for the remote.
Those are two of the top surfaces most likely to be contaminated with potentially sickening bacteria, according to a small new study aimed at boosting cleaning practices at the nation's hotels and motels.
Katie Kirsch, a University of Houston researcher, led a team that measured germs on everything from curtain rods to bathroom sinks in nine hotel rooms in three states.
Kirsch came away thinking that the current industry standard of visual assessment -- if it looks clean, it is clean -- isn't good enough.
"A visual assessment can't tell you about bacteria and viruses," she told msnbc.com. "It can tell you what's on the surface, but not if it's been disinfected."
Kirsch, a recent graduate who has also studied subjects like the pathogens that linger on restaurant menus and the cleanliness of public bathrooms, enlisted colleagues at Purdue University and the University of South Carolina. They're presenting their work Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.
The researchers went looking for aerobic bacteria, which include germs known to cause illness, including streptococcus and staphylococcus. They also tested for coliform -- or fecal -- bugs. They swabbed the surfaces, put the samples on ice and then flew them to the University of Houston microbiology lab for analysis.
Top hot spots for aerobic bacteria in hotels turned out to be the bathroom sinks and floors, the main light switches and the TV remotes. The remotes, for instance, racked up a mean of 67.6 colony-forming units of bacteria, or CFU, per cubic centimeter squared.
For comparison, one study of environmental cleanliness in hospitals recommended a top limit of 5 CFU per cubic centimeter squared. Even using Kirsch's relaxed proposal of 10 CFU, the TV remotes racked up way too many bugs.
The main light switches in the rooms were worse, with a mean of 112.7 CFU for aerobic bacteria. Even the telephone keypad was icky, with 20.2 CFU.
When it came to fecal bacteria, the main light switch was the most serious surface offender, with 111.1 CFU.
That may sound disgusting, but it doesn't necessarily mean hotel surfaces will make you sick, emphasized Kirsch, who said that her study wasn't designed to test for the specific pathogens that cause illness. Her supervisor underscored that it shouldn't keep people from staying in hotels.
"It's not a scare thing," said Jay Neal, an assistant professor in the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant management.
Instead, Kirsch was conducting baseline research that she hopes might one day inspire the hotel industry to adopt cleaning and sanitation guidelines invoked through HACCP -- Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points -- a protocol already used by food and healthcare industries.
"The study is aimed more toward the housekeeping managers," she noted.
In addition to checking for the bugs on surfaces in the hotel rooms, the researchers also swabbed for bacteria on the gloves, mops and sponges used by cleaning staff, which have the potential to carry germs from room to room.
Those items were crawling with all kinds of bacteria: at least 500 CFU of aerobic and fecal bacteria on the sponges, for instance.
"When you're in a hotel room, there's that stranger factor," said Neal, noting that no one wants to inherit fecal bacteria from the guy down the hall.
Some hotels appear to be getting the message. Best Western hotels, for instance, just launched a campaign to equip its housekeepers with black light testers to detect unseen bugs. They're even offering a sanitary wrap for the remotes.
Hampton Inns have launched a campaign emphasizing cleanliness with commercials featuring a hotel guest dressed in a Hazmat suit.
Meanwhile, ordinary guests fearful of hotel germs can take matters into their own hands, said Kirsch, who agreed traveling with sanitizing wipes is an option: "It would make consumers feel better to wipe down the surfaces."