How To Avoid Public Bathroom Germs

COVID-19, the flu, common colds, and other nasty illnesses lurk around toilets, stalls, and faucets.

A public bathroom might not be your first choice when you have to go. But sometimes you can't book it home when you feel that urge. 

So, what can you do to minimize your risk of contracting a virus or bacteria lurking in these public spaces if you have to share a bathroom with other people?

Here's what you should know about why public restrooms are so germ-infested and tips for staying safe while you're in one.

Why Public Restrooms Are Risky

"A public bathroom is a petri dish," Carol Winner, MS, founder of Love of Peach, told Health. "Considering the number of steel surfaces, doorknobs, and toilet handles, it's important to use caution."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu can survive on some surfaces for 48 hours. Also, per the CDC, on surfaces, coronaviruses like SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, die within hours to days. Some evidence suggests that SARS-CoV-2 can survive on "porous" surfaces for minutes to hours.

Still, it cautions that whether those findings accurately reflect real-world conditions is unclear. The CDC says that "it's possible" for people to become infected with COVID-19 through contact with infected surfaces. But generally, the CDC considers the risk to be low.

Then there's the toilet itself. Simply flushing can expel as much as 60% of produced aerosols three feet into the air above the seat, per a study published in 2020 in Physics of Fluids. That phenomenon is known as "toilet plume" or "toilet turbulence." But it's unclear whether virus-concentrated aerosol spray from a toilet can infect you.

What Are Viruses and Bacteria?

Regarding restroom safety, knowing the difference between viruses and bacteria can be helpful. 

Bacteria are microorganisms that can live on their own for longer periods than viruses. For example, E. coli, which can be present in feces, may be lurking in public restrooms. If accidentally ingested, E. coli may cause symptoms such as:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Fever

Staphylococcus (staph) bacteria may also live in public restrooms. Per a study published in 2014 in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, researchers found an abundance of staph bacteria in samples from four public restrooms at San Diego State University.

Most staph infections don't cause serious illness. But one strain of the bacteria, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), can cause potentially severe illness.

A virus, on the other hand, requires a host. Examples of infections caused by viruses are the flu and COVID-19.

How To Stay Safe in a Public Restroom

You don’t have any control over what other people do in a public restroom or how well and often it’s cleaned. But you can take plenty of steps to avoid contact with infectious germs, including the following.

Cover Your Hands

Using a public restroom requires touching many potentially germ-infested surfaces, from door handles to faucets to stall doors to toilet paper dispensers. 

To avoid picking up bacteria and viral particles, arm yourself with wipes and tissues so you'll always have something to cover your hand with and won't touch those surfaces directly. Carry them in your personal belongings, so you're covered even if the restroom doesn't have its stash.

Be Quick

The longer you stay in the restroom, the higher your odds of encountering viral particles or bacteria, Anne Rimoin, PhD, MPH, professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Jonathan and Karin Fielding School of Public Health, told Health

But don't do your business in a hurry and skip out on handwashing and drying, both of which help you stay germ-free. Instead, avoid hanging around while your friends are using the restroom or deciding to redo your makeup or fix your hair when you don't have to.

Wear a Mask

Even though it's unclear whether flushing the toilet can spray and spread germs, wearing a mask in a public restroom may help. Wearing a mask also protects you from the germs of other people talking, sneezing, or coughing in the bathroom. Also, turn away from the toilet bowl after flushing, advised Winner.

Once your mask is on, leave it alone. If you touch your mask after touching anything in the bathroom, you can transfer germs from your hand to your face. And your eyes, nose, and mouth are prime entry points for germs.

When you've washed your hands and left the restroom, you can remove your mask, dispose of it, or take it home to be washed.

Wash Your Hands Correctly

You should immediately wash your hands after using the toilet in a public restroom. Here's a reminder why: Washing with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds is an effective way to rid your hands of viruses and bacteria, according to the CDC. 

But if there's no soap, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. While hand sanitizer is not as effective as soap and warm water, it's better than not washing at all.

Dry Your Hands With a Paper Towel

When you're done washing your hands, dry them with a paper towel or a tissue rather than an air dryer, if possible. Research has found that air dryers can spread viral particles and bacteria from infected hands. Though, as of December 2022, no study has found that air dryers are a direct cause of people becoming ill.

Be sure to dry your hands right after washing because germs easily spread from wet hands. If you don't have any paper towels or are out of wipes or tissues, use the dryer rather than leave the restroom with your hands wet.

Don’t Ditch Your Paper Towel Too Soon

After you've dried your hands with a paper towel, don't chuck them into the waste basket just yet. Instead, use the paper towel to open the door handle.

Often, the door handles in public restrooms are steel surfaces potentially covered in germs. So, you can exit the restroom and get on with your day, suggested Winner. 

"Discard it on the other side," added Winner.

Stay off Your Smartphone

Your phone is a germ magnet of its own. A study published in 2020 in Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease found that mobile phones are a hotbed for bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

So, touching your phone while you use a public restroom boosts the risk of transferring germs to your device. From your phone, germs can easily get into your mouth or nose and make you sick. You can go without your phone for a few minutes. So, leave your device alone until you can touch it with clean hands.

A Quick Review

Public bathrooms can harbor bacteria and viruses, from the flu to E. coli to COVID-19. Because those germs can infect you through the air or on surfaces like handles and knobs, taking precautions while using a public bathroom is important. 

Simple steps like washing your hands thoroughly, keeping your distance from other people if possible, and quickly getting in and out can reduce your chances of catching something in a germ-filled space.

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