If you've seen a household cleanser ad lately, you've probably seen a bacteria, mold, or fungus, personified as an ugly little critter with sharp teeth, scaly skin, and a bad attitude. Those ads make it seem as if bathroom germs are mounting a daily, organized invasion of your tub, toilet, and shower. But what are the real bathroom germs lurking behind your sink, what can you catch from them, and how can you combat them?
Bathroom Germs: They're Everywhere
The bad news is yes, there are probably a lot of germs in your bathroom. In fact, there are a lot of germs on your body.
"There are more germs than body cells on the human body, by a factor of 10," says Philip M. Tierno, Jr., PhD, director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at Tisch Hospital, New York University Medical Center. "So 90% of the total number of cells on your body are actually germ cells. We can't live in a bubble and avoid germs." But, says Tierno, most germs are perfectly harmless to us.
Not all of them, of course. So what harmful germ beasties might be prowling in your bathroom? There are several types:
- Gastrointestinal viruses that cause stomach ailments in humans. These include the norovirus, which you may have heard of in connection with cruise ship outbreaks. These viruses aren't just on cruise ships; they can be exploring your toilet seat as well. Gastrointestinal viruses "are easily transmitted and can remain on a solid surface for as much as a week," says Tierno.
- Enteric pathogens, which are organisms spread by contaminated foods (and can, of course, be carried in feces). These include things like E. coli, salmonella, shigella, and campylobacter. E. coli O157:H7 is particularly nasty, causing severe diarrhea with bloody stools. "It's the bacteria that killed four children and caused a lot of illness at Jack-in-the-Box restaurants in California in 1993," says Donna Duberg, MA, MS, assistant professor of clinical laboratory science at Saint Louis University.
- Skin and respiratory organisms, such as staphylococcus aureus ("staph") bacteria, including the antibiotic resistant MRSA strain, and Group A Strep, known as the "flesh-eating" bacteria.
- Dermatophitic fungi, like athlete's foot, transmitted by walking barefoot in the bathroom.
- Other residual fungi, like those indigenous to showers -- the "mold and mildew" of bathroom cleanser fame. "They don't cause infection, but they can exacerbate asthma and allergies," says Tierno.
But before you evacuate your bathroom and call Hazmat, here's the good news: if you clean regularly and practice basic hygiene, there's very little risk from the bathroom germs you'll find there. "Only about 1%-2% of all germs are pathogenic -- meaning they can make us sick," says Tierno. "There's a possibility you can catch something, but if you practice good personal, household, and food hygiene, you're at pretty low risk."