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How Dirty Is Your Money, Really?

Why your cold cash can pick up many germs and bacteria.

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Cash. We need it to live. But have you ever stopped to think of what it is you're touching when you hold a $20 bill, or a handful of nickels and dimes? Unless they're crisp bills straight from the mint, or freshly unwrapped quarters, the chances are, they've changed hands many, many times. Let's break it down, and discover the filthy truth of what might be lurking on the money in your wallet.

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The Lifespan of Bank Notes and Coins

Coins are built to last. Right now you can find coins for sale that date back to the age of Julius Caesar. The average lifespan of a coin is around 30 years, but some can still be in circulation after 50 years or more. They change hands thousands of times, and never get cleaned.

Conversely, "paper" money is nowhere near as hardy, but as it's made up of 25% linen and 75% cotton, it's not really paper at all. It's cloth. This makes it resistant to folds (the average bill can be folded back and forth over 4,000 times before tearing), with a humble dollar bill lasting almost five years. However, because the material is also absorbent, it has the chance to pick up a multitude of germs and bacteria.

What's on Your Money?

The Dirty Money Project, in New York, has been studying our money for years. Its findings are not for the faint of heart. Each dollar bill carries roughly 3,000 types of bacteria on its surface. Common microbes found include the ones that cause acne and other skin problems. Anthrax was also detected, but fear not, it was not the weaponized variety.

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The Southern Medical Journal also did one of many studies conducted on the state of our one-dollar bills. A staggering 94% of the bills they tested contained pathogenic, or potentially pathogenic, organisms. In other words, almost every one-dollar bill you touch contains a bacterium, virus, or microorganism that causes disease. Now, what kind of disease you come into contact with is a matter of blind luck.

Furthermore, the very dangerous bacteria MRSA (which can lead to the flesh-eating disease necrotizing fasciitis) was discovered on 80% of the dollar bills studied in a test by St. Petersburg College professor Shannon McQuaig.

Specifically, What Germs Are on Bank Notes?

Of the many studies done, several of which have been cited in this article, the following dangerous microorganisms were found:

Streptococcus

This isn't too much of a concern. Should you contract this, you will most likely get a sore throat, although it can cause skin infections, urinary tract infections, and even pneumonia.

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E. coli

You know this one well, especially after the spread of it last year at several Chipotle locations. Although many types of it are harmless, some can be deadly. E. coli has led to anemia and kidney failure, which can lead to death. Most people who get ill from it suffer stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Salmonella Enterica

A major cause of food poisoning, you will usually get this by eating contaminated food. However, anyone who handles raw food or fecal matter, and then handles money, can be responsible for spreading it.

Staphylococcus Aureus

This causes the staph infections you have probably heard about. Most commonly, this is a skin infection, but it can also lead to pneumonia, food poisoning, and blood poisoning.

MRSA

A type of staphylococcus aureus that is very dangerous, because it is resistant to antibiotics and other drugs in the methicillin class.

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Proteus

This is a bacterium found in the intestines of animals, and in the soil. It will most likely cause a urinary tract infection, which is easily treatable.

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Your Money Is Downright Disgusting

It's filthy. It's teaming with bacteria. It's infested with germs. And it really can make you sick. If you handle money on a routine basis, it's advisable to wash your hands regularly, and use hand sanitizers as often as you can. Don't lick your fingers to count money, as that can obviously have nasty results. You should also avoid touching money and then eating food with your hands, but as that is something that happens often (restaurants, bars, food carts, football games) you should carry a pocket hand sanitizer and apply that before you eat. Also, don't put money in your mouth, not even for a bet, and don't put your hands near your mouth after touching money.

This article is from Paul Michael of Wise Bread, an award-winning personal finance and credit card comparison website.

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This article is from Wise Bread, not the Kiplinger editorial staff.