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Are there any health risks to using public toilets? Here’s what the experts say.

Public toilets are full of germs. But how harmful are they actually to your health? (Getty Images) (Getty Images)

For some, public restrooms have always been a source of germ-induced anxiety, but the pandemic has understandably made these concerns more universal. And now that most people have returned to normal lives, using communal facilities regularly, many are thinking twice about not only the dirt they see – or smell – in the stalls, but, more importantly, the pathogens that persist beyond our sight, both on surfaces and in the air.

Truth be told, any bathroom – public or not – is a hot spot for germs, given its function. So, should you worry about using public toilets? We asked the experts for answers.

What is happening

“What makes public restrooms particularly germy is the large number of people passing through them and the microbes those people might be carrying,” Lena Ciric, professor of built environment microbiology at the University College London. “At the end of the day, you just don’t know who has been there and what they may have had. It’s more a game of chance than anything else. »

This game is heavily influenced by the frequency of cleaning and the quality of bathroom ventilation, because some bacteria and viruses can linger on surfaces or in the air longer than others, says Kevin Garey, president of pharmacy practice at the University of Houston, at Yahoo. Life. Norovirus, for example, can survive on surfaces for up to four weeks.

There is also concern that hand dryers circulate contaminated air. However, research indicates that they make little difference to the bacterial load of an indoor space compared to using paper towels. Ciric adds that they can actually be useful for diluting a concentrated plume of disease by mixing the surrounding air, thereby reducing the risk of infection. “It all depends on how much you start with,” she says.

Should I be worried?

It is very unlikely that you will get sick from entering and using public toilets. After all, to become infected, microbes must enter your system, and this most likely happens through ingestion from your own hands, contaminated by surfaces such as the toilet seat, flush handle, toilet latch. the cabin or the tap of the faucet, explains Ciric. But if you wash your hands well and don’t touch your face, you should be fine.

Germ-filled post-flush sprays can also be ingested, but again, this is more likely to happen if you hover your face over the toilet mid-swirl. And “I hope people don’t lick toilet seats,” jokes Ciric.

If you TO DO You happen to catch a bug during your bathroom break, it’s probably a gastrointestinal bug, like norovirus, e.coli or shigella., because these are found in stools, says Jyoti Kini, a primary care physician at Manhattan Medical Practices. On the other hand, the probability of catching a virus like COVID in the bathroom is low. “From a respiratory point of view, we stay there for a relatively short time,” explains Ciric. “So it’s not the same as sitting in a room with someone for three hours.”

You also don’t have to worry about sitting on the toilet and contracting sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, Kini adds, because they die as soon as they leave the protection of the mucous membrane. However, viruses such as hepatitis, HPV, HIV and herpes “can live outside the body on surfaces from seconds to weeks,” she says.

Yet, generally speaking, intact skin – that is, no open wounds – and the existing healthy, protective microbes in our bodies “do a very good job of keeping out the germs we pick up in public restrooms.” or elsewhere to cause infections,” explains Garey. “For this reason, sitting on a toilet seat and picking up a few germs usually won’t make you sick.”

What can I do about this?

In short, the best thing you can do to avoid germs in public restrooms is to minimize your contact with frequently touched areas such as flush handles, toilet seats, and faucets (or at least d (avoid touching your face afterwards) and wash your hands. as soon as possible and thoroughly “with soap and water, scrubbing with the soap for at least 20 seconds,” says Garey.

If your bathroom of choice has a sink with a built-in hand dryer alongside the taps, it may be worth opting for hand sanitizer, as Ciric says tumble dryers can throw germs and moisture in the sink onto your hands, eliminating them. your efforts – “a recipe for disaster,” she says.

As for whether to sit or squat over the toilet, that’s really a personal choice. “If you have leg strength and it makes you feel better, squatting is totally OK,” says Garey. However, as Ciric says, you’re not likely to get a bug on the skin on your legs if you don’t have any open sores. “It’s easier to hover over some features than others,” Ciric notes, so it’s not worth hurting yourself trying to poop.

Ciric and Garey say it’s good to use a toilet seat protector. But if you’re specifically concerned about the seat, it’s even better to pack some disinfectant wipes to quickly clean the seat and rinse the handle – the handle is much more likely to get germs, as people touch it immediately after the seat. having wiped, Ciric emphasizes – before sitting down. If you’re extra cautious: Carry your own toilet paper to avoid using potentially contaminated — and let’s be honest, crappy — single-ply toilet paper in the stall, Kini suggests. Finally, avoid putting your purse or other items on the stall floor, because “this is usually the dirtiest area in the bathroom and is usually the one that is cleaned the least.” , explains Garey.

The main thing to remember

Although public restrooms can be disgusting, the limited time spent there generally makes them safe, as long as you avoid touching your face and wash your hands immediately. “This should help manage business and leave a person without worry of infectious disease,” Garey says.

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