What Can You Catch in Restrooms?
Common cold germs, like most viruses, die rapidly, and thus may be less of a threat than you think. "Even if you come into contact with particular viruses or bacteria, you'd have to contract them in amounts large enough to make you sick," says Judy Daly, PhD, professor of pathology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
Germs in feces can be propelled into the air when the toilet is flushed. For that reason, Philip Tierno, MD, director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at New York University Medical Center and Mt. Sinai Medical Center, advises leaving the stall immediately after flushing to keep the microscopic, airborne mist from choosing you as a landing site. "The greatest aerosol dispersal occurs not during the initial moments of the flush, but rather once most of the water has already left the bowl," he says.
Other hot zones in public bathrooms include sinks, faucet handles, and towel dispensers. Picture someone emerging from a bathroom stall, and turning on the faucet with dirty hands, and you'll know why faucet handles are a potentially troublesome surface. Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson found that sinks are the greatest reservoir of germ colonies in restrooms, thanks in part to accumulations of water that become breeding grounds for tiny organisms.
"Your own immune system is your first line of defense against contracting diseases in public restrooms," says Daly. But hand washing is a very important adjunct. Yet a survey that was part of ASM's Clean Hands Campaign revealed this dirty little secret: Though 95% of men and women claim that they wash after using a public toilet, observations made by researchers discovered that only 67% actually do.
"Many people are unconcerned about microorganisms because you can rush out of an airport bathroom without washing your hands, and lightning won't strike you," says Salyers. "So these people may think that handwashing is not all that important."
Even if you wash your hands, you may not do it properly, says Tierno, author of The Secret Life of Germs. "Some individuals move their hands quickly under a flow of water for only a second or so, and they don't use soap. That's not going to do much good."