Can You Catch Germs From a Public Toilet Seat?

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A newly built public toilet in Kumasi, Ghana, pictured on January 24, 2011, helps contribute to a higher level of cleanliness and sanitation in the area. Most public toilets, like this one, are built by private businesses and charge a small fee.

Using public bathrooms gives many of us the heebie-jeebies. But the biggest danger doesn’t come from sitting on the seat.

There’s no denying that public bathrooms can be germ-ridden places. scientists who studied samples taken from a variety of public restrooms found that the sheer number of illness-causing bacteria present was too big to measure in many cases. So it’s only natural to worry about what may be lurking on even the cleanest-looking toilet seats — forget about the ones that appear wet or dirty.Now don’t let us talk much about those one at the major bus stops in Lagos, Ewwwwwwww!

No wonder that 60 percent of Nigerians say they won’t sit down to use a public toilet, according to Statistics taken for this article.

But experts say our fear of sitting on the average toilet seat (one that isn’t visibly soiled) is overblown.

There’s no question that germs can inhabit the seat, says Ify Darego, MD, Abuja. “The bulk of the organisms found are basically fecal-borne bacteria.” These nasties can include E. coli (which can cause bloody diarrhea or abdominal cramps), streptococcus (the bug behind strep throat), or S. aureus (linked to serious skin problems or pneumonia).

But just because they’re on the seat doesn’t mean they’ll make you sick. That’s because your skin acts as a very effective barrier to keep germs out (unless you have an open wound or lesion on your behind).

What about the herpes virus, HIV, or other sexually transmitted diseases? These organisms don’t survive for long outside the human body, especially not on a cold, hard toilet seat. And to infect you, they need to enter either through an open cut or sore or via a mucous membrane (your mouth or rectum, for example), which wouldn’t normally come into contact with the seat. All this makes the odds of infection from just sitting down miniscule.

Are you safer if you use those paper seat protectors? Dr. Darego isn’t a fan: “They’re too thin, they rip and fall apart.” If you want to use them, he says, you can double-fold them, or place double-folded toilet paper on the seat. The automatically replaced plastic covers are better, he says, but such barriers on the seat act more as psychological than physical protection.

That said, no one wants to sit on a visibly dirty or soiled seat. Use common sense,Darego says: “If [the toilet seat is] dirty, don’t use it.” But in general, he says, “You’re unlikely to pick up anything from a toilet seat.”

Where Germs Really Hide

But germs aren’t only found on the seat itself. “Where you find the organisms in larger quantities would be the underside of the toilet seat, because that is not cleaned as often [as the top]. As you flush, you bring up the contents in the bowl,” says Darego. “It’s not just your germs, it’s germs from other people.” Some toilets can aerosolize the contents for quite a distance after being flushed, he says: “five feet or so, with lower-volume flushes.” Older toilets can spray as far as 20 feet! If you’re using a public toilet that doesn’t have a lid, Darego recommends opening the door first before you flush, to get out of the way of the spray quickly.

And those far-reaching flushes may be responsible for another germ-ridden area of a typical public restroom: the floor. A Channels News investigation of the germiest spots in public bathrooms found that the floor has about 2 million bacteria per square inch! If you carry a purse or shoulder bag, avoid putting it down on the floor while you’re in the bathroom — hang it on the back of the door if possible.

Scrub Up!

But the real danger in picking up and carrying around germs comes from your hands, warns Darego: “The 10 dirtiest things are your fingers.” Germs left on your hands can be easily transferred to surfaces you touch or to your eyes, mouth, or nose — where they can make you and other people sick. That’s why hand-washing with lots of soap and water is so important after using the bathroom.

What’s the best way to scrub? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you rub your hands with soap lather for at least 20 seconds (the amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice), and be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. If soap and water is not available, Darego says, use a quarter-sized drop of alcohol-based hand sanitizer. You can then use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door to leave.

 

Here’s the bottom line: It’s not your bottom you need to worry about, it’s your hands. Wash them!

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