Should you use toilet seat covers in public restrooms?
Public toilets: Who knows who’s been there and what’s left behind that you don’t want?
Gastrointestinal bugs, bacteria and viruses…seems like that sheet of tissue might save a lot of problems, right?
Most germs that hang out on public toilet seats are common skin microbes. They aren’t likely to make you sick. In fact, we need “good and neutral” germs in our environment to keep us healthy. A study in Applied Environmental Microbiology found there were no more germs on public toilets than on home toilets.
Either way, that paper cover offers almost no protection against what might be there.
Germs and how they spread
It’s possible (but rare) to pick up a few problem germs from toilet seats: e. coli, staph, strep and shigella. But you’re far more likely to pick these bugs up with your hands than with your bottom. Every time someone flushes, the germs get sprayed through the air. They land on the floor, walls, the toilet paper, the flush handle. (Use your foot to flush.)
So the best protection is to wash your hands thoroughly when you’re done to inactivate any germs you may have picked up.
But what about STDs?
The notion you can get sexually transmitted diseases from toilet seats has been debunked. Organisms like gonorrhea don’t live very long away from the body, and they hang out on skin — not in urine or feces.
What about MRSA?
The scary antibiotic-resistant organism MRSA (methicillin resistant staphlococcus aureus) is more likely to be found on a hospital toilet than a public one. But even on hospital toilet seats, it’s rare. Hospitals tell patients with weak immune systems to wipe hospital toilets clean with alcohol swabs, not put paper covers over them.
Toilet seats aren’t even that dirty compared to many other things. Cutting boards and keyboards have 200 times as many bacteria per square inch as toilet seats. The kitchen sink and sponge are the dirtiest surfaces of all in most homes — up to 200,000 times dirtier than the toilet.
Other things that are dirtier than a toilet seat: refrigerators, dog bowls, beards, cell phones and desktops. And that’s just a start.
Want to do more than wash your hands? You may want to wipe off the toilet seat with alcohol swabs or wipes. That’s a proven way to kill germs. So carry little swab packets and disposable rubber gloves: use those.
And wash your hands, even after using the gloves.
About the Author
Natalya Puckett, MD is a family medicine physician at Lakeshore Medical Clinic in St. Francis, WI.