Recently in the news, there was a noted “rash” of toilet seat rashes caused from contact with harsh cleaning chemicals that rubbed against the bottoms and thighs of toddlers. While these skin eruptions were caused by direct irritation, it reminds me of why so many women, including myself, never sit on a public toilet seat hoping to avoid contact with whatever may be brewing there. Can you really catch an infection from sitting on a toilet seat or would it actually be safe to sit down?
Public restrooms are harbingers of many different types of bacteria but fortunately the majority of them can only survive for a short time on a toilet seat. So while some people are concerned they could acquire an STD such as chlamydia or gonorrhea, the only way those bacteria could enter their body and cause an infection was if a sore or a cut came in contact with the live bacteria or if the bacteria were able to come in direct contact with their urethra or genital tract. According to Abigail Salyers, PhD, president of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) as reported to webmd.com, "To my knowledge, no one has ever acquired an STD on the toilet seat -- unless they were having sex on the toilet seat!"
One area of germ contamination we rarely think about is what happens when you flush the toilet. Germs from feces that have entered the water are aerosolized up into the air from the action of the water flowing down. My family and I watched an impressive demonstration of this on the television show MythBusters and we have all since started closing the lid of the toilet before flushing. Those bacteria-laden particles rise quite a distance from the toilet and have nowhere else to travel but to the other surfaces in your bathroom. If you are in a public toilet, it is best to leave the stall as soon as you flush to avoid exposure.
Speaking about flushing, the handle of the toilet is also a prime target for bacteria to congregate. It is recommended in a public toilet to use your foot to flush avoiding one place to pick up some germs. And as you head out to wash your hands be aware; according to studies at University of Arizona in Tucson, the highest amount of bacteria in a restroom is located at the sink due to an accumulation of standing water that frequently puddles around the faucets; a prime medium for germ growth.
Numerous studies have shown that people claim to wash their hands after using the bathroom but in reality many do not or they only do so quickly without scrubbing with soap. The water does not even need to be hot to wash your hands but scrubbing for at least 20-30 seconds is the most important way to dislodge any lurking old or newly acquired bacteria on your skin. If there are paper towels in the bathroom, use a paper towel to shut the running faucet water, not your newly cleaned hands. Use a new paper towel to dry your hands then use that same paper towel to open the door to leave.
Even though the likelihood of getting a bacterial infection from sitting on a toilet seat is pretty low, I think I will still follow the lead of my mother who told me at the age of six, “Never sit sweetie when you use a public toilet and try not to touch anything.”
Michele is an R.N. freelance writer with a special interest in woman’s healthcare and quality of care issues. Other articles by Michele can be read at http://www.helium.com/users/487540/show_articles