Q: I was recently at a concert with my husband and had to take a potty break at intermission. The crowd at the arena was, shall we say, a bit grungy (it wasn’t exactly a James Taylor concert, if you know what I mean). I’ve thought about this before, of course, but the thought crossed my mind again that night while I was hovering over the toilet seat. What diseases can you catch from public restrooms, and more specifically, public toilets?
A: Like many people, I get the heebie-jeebies from public bathrooms. When I’m roadtripping, I’ll hold it in for miles to avoid having to go at some nondescript gas station bathroom that requires a key to unlock (What exactly do they think we’re stealing from there anyway? Toilet paper? Do they think we’re going to rip the air dryer off the wall?). And don’t even get me started on what might be lurking on the key itself (shudder).
So what exactly can you catch from a public bathroom? Well, a lot of stuff actually, but it’s not as bad as you may think.
You see, some people think you can actually catch an STD from a toilet seat, when in fact, that is generally not the case. Sexually transmitted diseases are just that — sexually transmitted. Contrary to popular belief, you cannot get gonorrhea from the toilet seat … as long as all you’re doing is using the toilet for its intended purpose (ahem) and don’t have an open sore on your bottom.
There are other things you can catch in the loo though — things like hepatitis A, salmonella and the common cold and flu. But you’re not as likely to catch these things from sitting on a toilet seat as you are from turning on the faucet or opening the bathroom door with your bare hands. CNN’s handy guide to the germiest places in the bathroom lists the toilet seat as the least likely place to get you sick because most people cover the toilet seat while they’re using and even if they don’t, their hands are not coming into contact with it. (Still though, I wouldn’t exactly eat off of it.)
The worst places in a public bathroom are the sink, the door handle, and of course, the floor. So what can you do to keep yourself germ-free?
The most important thing you can do is to wash your hands with soap and water. Put water and a dollop of soap on your hands, and agitate them together for 20 seconds (as they teach my son in school — about the time it takes you to sing “Happy Birthday” two times). Then, once you dry your hands on a clean paper towel, use that paper towel to open the door.
Avoid touching any surfaces in the bathroom, especially the floor. This means if you see a roll of toilet paper on the floor — don’t use it. And of course, don’t put your belongings on the floor either. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona who studied germs in public restrooms, found that one third of the women’s purses he looked at harbored fecal bacteria on the bottom.
So remember, next time you’re in a public bathroom, your single worst enemy in the bathroom is your own hands and the things they touch (not the toilet seat). Your single best defense? Washing those hands, and washing them well.