Imagine this scenario. You’re at the mall or another public place when you suddenly hear the call of nature. You try to hold it back as long as you could and when the need becomes too strong to deny, you are faced with no choice but to run to the public restroom and then you hesitate. At the questionable hygienic state of the toilet, you wonder if it is safe to place your bum on it especially when you need to do a number two?
Before answering this question, I think there is a need to clear some misconceptions about what you CAN and CANNOT catch in public restrooms. Some people think that sexually transmitted disease causing bacteria like chlamydia for example and viruses like genital herpes are stuff you can get from the cold toilet seat. What they don’t know is that these are usually transmitted only through skin-to-skin contact. The moment these microbes touch the cold surface of the porcelain throne, they die.
Phew! Glad to clear that up. You can’t sigh with relief just yet. You’re not completely out of the woods yet. Although it is highly unlikely for you to get an STI from using the toilet, there are still other things you can catch.
Escherichia coli or E. coli for short, is defined by Wikipedia as “a Gram-negative, facultatively anaerobic, rod-shaped bacterium of the genus Escherichia that is commonly found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded organisms (endotherms).”
Most strains are generally harmless but if you happen to be exposed to it by accident whether through food or water that’s been contaminated, you could be stricken with diarrhea. In worst cases, this fecal contaminant can cause abdominal cramping, bloody stool as well as vomiting. Unlike other microbes that can’t survive outside the host for long periods of time, E. coli can be persistent and stick to toilet surfaces.
Norovirus is a gastrointestinal virus that often afflicts not only cruise ship crew but also passengers. Like E. coli, it can cause stomach distress and is easily transmissible from one person to another. The norovirus can contaminate nonporous surfaces–which include toilet seats–for a period of up to two weeks even if those surfaces have been cleaned. If you read this in-depth study, it further expounds on what this disease is capable of doing.
Shigella bacteria is another microbe that can be easily passed on to others, especially when people forget to or incorrectly wash their hands. It causes shigellosis or what may be more commonly known as bacillary dysentery. This infectious disease can lead to gastrointestinal distress–including abdominal cramping as well as severe diarrhea–which can last as long as a week. Its capability to infect others peaks during diarrhea but it can continue to be infectious even after the host is getting better.
Shigellosis is transmitted in a similar way as E. coli–when you come in contact with surfaces that have been contaminated with an infected person’s fecal discharge. These surfaces not only comprise of toilets, they also include toilet handles as well as toilet seats. When an infected person handles food and water without practicing good hygiene, they become contaminated and provide another medium for infection to spread.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus
Staphylococcus aureus is a bacterium which is commonly found in the human respiratory tract or on the skin. It is one of the common causes behind skin infections like boils, respiratory diseases like sinusitis and food poisoning. Staph is not always pathogenic, but the strains that are can be problematic–especially those that develop resistance to antibiotics. These antibiotic-resistant strains like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) to name one, is capable of surviving on a toilet seat–and other nonporous surfaces–for two months or more. What’s more, it takes mere seconds for MRSA to transfer from the infected toilet seat to the skin. A more detailed report can be found on Clinical Infectious Diseases.
Minor viruses like influenza and the common cold among others, have a relatively high potential of surviving on nonporous surfaces. They can survive up to three days and infect surfaces of your phone, toilet seat as well as the remote control. Some viral strains are capable of lasting even longer like the Bird flu, which can last for weeks. The common cold is less of a worry since rhinoviruses’ lifespan on hard surfaces is usually less than a day.
Since cold and flu are easily transmissible through the mucous membrane, it is better to avoid touching your face–your eyes, nose and mouth–especially after you’ve come in contact with the toilet seat. Make use of the hygiene products available and always wash your hands after using restroom.