Bathroom Germs You Really Can Catch

What are the real bathroom germs lurking behind your sink -- and how can you combat them?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on November 16, 2011
4 min read

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?

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."

If you follow a few simple rules for cleaning your bathroom, and cleaning yourself when you use the bathroom, you can usually avoid transmitting most of these organisms. Let's start with cleaning rules.

  • Clean regularly. This means cleaning all bathroom floors and solid surfaces with a disinfectant cleanser on a weekly basis, and "deep cleaning" -- a more thorough scrubbing -- about once a month. If you or a family member or household visitor has had the flu or diarrhea, you might want to step up the cleaning.
  • Use the right cleanser when tackling bathroom germs. Choose one with bleach or make your own bleach solution, with no more than 1 cup of bleach mixed in 1 gallon of water to disinfect.
  • Pay special attention to the toilet bowl. "That's where all the excretions go," says Tierno. "A biofilm grows after just a few hours with any germ, even normal flora, which can allow household pathogens to survive even with chlorine tablets in the water. So scrub that bowl with soap, disinfectant, and a brush once a week." Let the bleach sit on the bowl and seat surface for a good 10 minutes before rinsing with soapy water, adds Duberg.
  • Keep shower walls and floors free of mold and mildew. "Shower curtains should have a liner on the inside that's changed every three to six months, depending on how well you're cleaning," says Tierno.
  • For spot cleaning bathroom germs, keep either a spray bottle of the bleach solution or packaged cleaning wipes within arm's reach in every bathroom.
  • Don't reuse sponges, which can harbor bacteria themselves and leave surfaces more germy than when you started. "Instead, buy cheap disposable sponges or use old towels or clothes as rags," says Duberg.

In the battle with bathroom germs, it's also important to practice good personal hygiene.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly after using the toilet and before brushing your teeth.
  • Close the toilet lid when you flush. "Flushing aerosolizes all the organisms found in feces, and there are 3.2 million microbes per square inch of toilet bowl," says Duberg. That means that when you flush with the lid up, it's like pressing the nozzle on a spray canister full of infectious organisms.
  • Discard toothbrushes after you've been sick.
  • Use disposable bathroom cups instead of glasses.

If you and your family follow these simple steps, you're likely to stay fairly safe from bathroom germs. "The bulk of germs are harmless to us; they maintain our life and our immunities," says Tierno. "But it's important to know where the harmful ones are and how to deal with them so as to prevent unnecessary bouts of illness that waylay you for days."