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What Can You Catch in Restrooms?

Bathroom Paranoia

WebMD Feature

Perhaps Ally McBeal can ease her off-the-charts stress levels by escaping to the office restroom. But for most of us, public toilets are actually a bit scary.

 

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If you squirm at the thought of creepy germs lurking on toilet seats and faucet handles, you probably spend as little time as possible in the restrooms of your office building, not to mention those in restaurants, hotels and (God forbid!) gas stations. And during those nerve-wracking moments when you dare to venture into the confines of the bathroom, you may find yourself pushing open the stall door with your elbows, crouching precariously above the toilet seat rather than letting your skin touch it, and flushing with your shoe.

 

But while there's plenty of bathroom paranoia to go around, anxiety might be a little overdone. Yes, there can be plenty of bugs lying in wait in public restrooms, including both familiar and unfamiliar suspects like streptococcus, staphylococcus, E. coli and shigella bacteria, hepatitis A virus, the common cold virus, and various sexually transmitted organisms. But if your immune system is healthy, and if you adopt simple hygienic measures like handwashing, you should be able to deliver a knockout punch to most of what you encounter and perhaps put your "germ-phobia" to rest.

No doubt about it, there could be a witch's brew of germs wherever you turn in public restrooms. Many people consider toilet seats to be public enemy No. 1 -- the playground for organisms responsible for STDs like chlamydia or gonorrhea. But before you panic, the toilet seat is not a common vehicle for transmitting infections to humans. Many disease-causing organisms can survive for only a short time on the surface of the seat, and for an infection to occur, the germs would have to be transferred from the toilet seat to your urethral or genital tract, or through a cut or sore on the buttocks or thighs, which is possible but very unlikely.

 

"To my knowledge, no one has ever acquired an STD on the toilet seat -- unless they were having sex on the toilet seat!" says Abigail Salyers, PhD, president of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM).

 

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.

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