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Can Toilet Seats Make You Sick?

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Forget spiders and heights—when it comes to things that women are afraid of, the toilet takes top honors.


People think of toilets as steaming cesspools of filth, too covered in germs and bacteria for any self-respecting lady to put her butt on. Most bathrooms now offer disposable seat covers to protect our precious posteriors from the onslaught of death that surely lurks under the lid. Little girls are taught never to sit directly on the toilet seat, resulting in a lifetime of perfecting the “hover” maneuver, sometimes with messy consequences.


This fear seems to be only limited to public toilet seats, as if the toilets in our homes have some magic germ-repellent powers. I don’t know about you, but I can guarantee that the toilets in my office building are cleaned a LOT more often than the ones in my house. Truly foul toilets, like those in gas stations and bars, are usually the outliers, with most public restrooms being pretty innocuous and unthreatening. Bathrooms in office buildings and department stores are notorious for their attention to cleanliness, with many maintained hourly. Toilets are one of the great public health innovations, so why are women so afraid of taking a seat?


Unfounded Fears
Bathrooms are a place where germs congregate and public bathrooms tend to have more germs simply because more people use them. The most common bacteria and viruses found in public restrooms tend to be E. coli, rotaviruses, hepatitis A, the common cold, salmonella, and MRSA. It’s conceivable that if some of these organisms were alive on the toilet seat and a person sat down, she could risk contracting a disease.


However, our fears of contracting terrible diseases from toilet seats are, for the most part, unfounded. In fact, no health organization considers toilet seats to be dangerous vectors of infection. The biology of bacteria and viruses make transmission of diseases highly unlikely. These organisms are highly unstable outside of the human body, so they could only live for an extremely short time on a toilet seat (or any surface, for that matter) before they die. Viruses that cause diseases such as HIV, herpes, and hepatitis B are so unstable that they perish immediately after leaving the body, so the chances of contracting them is virtually zero. Furthermore, germs can’t invade our body unless they enter through a mucous membrane, so unless the virus or bacteria were to come into direct contact with the genital area or an open cut or sore, it would not be able to enter our bloodstream.


Another reason that disease transmission is unlikely is that the amount of bacteria present generally isn’t enough to make a person sick. You’d have to encounter a large colony of germs in order to become sick, and while bathrooms may have a greater variety of microbes, they don’t tend to have enough of any one particular kind of germ to infect a normal, healthy person.


Watch Your Hands
Although most people fuss over the toilet seat, it’s generally one of the cleaner places in a public restroom. There’s far more danger in what you touch than where you sit. The areas with larger organism concentrations are the sinks, the hand dryer, door handles, and faucets. Many studies have demonstrated that these places have far more germs and bacteria, in far greater concentrations, than on a toilet seat. Simple precautions are usually enough to ward away bacteria and washing hands thoroughly is still the easiest and best way to prevent contracting a contagious disease after turning on the faucet or flushing the toilet.


Although 95 percent of adults claim to wash their hands after using public restrooms, the American Society for Microbiology found that only about 77 percent actually did, most of them women. Their 2007 study found that only 66 percent of men wash their hands before exiting a restroom, while 88 percent of women do. Hand dryers with reusable cloth rollers are known for harboring germs and are best avoided.


Another good way to avoid bringing home bacteria is to keep your purse off the floor. Bathroom floors do tend to have large concentrations of bacteria and germs, including fecal matter. Putting a purse on the floor is a way to ensure that it becomes a traveling bacteria-bomb. For people with normal, healthy immune systems, these simple precautions are enough to keep the risk down, but those who are immunocompromised may want to take extra steps. Children, too, are at risk, especially because they tend to touch more things, and then put their hands into their mouths and eyes. For extra protection, alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be a cheap, portable way to stay germ-free, although it’s best to monitor kids’ use.  


Other places and situations are far more likely to bring us into contact with harmful organisms, such as the buttons of ATMs, cart handles at the supermarket, and the countless doors and other objects we touch every day. Food and water are easy means of disease transmission, so it’s riskier to eat at a restaurant where there is a sick cook than to use an average public restroom.


There’s no need to harbor a deep fear of toilets, because you’re far less likely to catch a bug there than by taking public transportation or visiting a school. Go ahead and use the paper seat protectors if they give you a feeling of well-being, but do make sure they flush completely, rather than leaving the mess for the next person. And whatever you do, if you must perform the “hover,” remember the saying that used to be on a needlepoint in my own childhood bathroom: “If you sprinkle when you tinkle, please be neat and wipe the seat.”

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