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What can I do to avoid germs in public restrooms?

Like many people, I get the heebie-jeebies from public bathrooms. When I’m on a road trip, I’ll hold it in for miles to avoid having to go at some nondescript gas station bathroom that requires a key to unlock.

So what exactly can you catch from a public bathroom? Well, a lot of stuff actually, but it’s not as bad as you may think.

Some people think you can catch an STD from a toilet seat, when in fact, that’s generally not the case. Sexually transmitted diseases are just that — sexually transmitted. Contrary to popular belief, you are unlikely to get gonorrhea from the toilet seat — as long as all you’re doing is using the toilet for its intended purpose (ahem) and you don’t have an open sore on your bottom.

There are other things you can catch in the loo though — things like hepatitis A, salmonella and the common cold and flu. But you’re not as likely to catch these things from sitting on a toilet seat as you are from turning on the faucet or opening the bathroom door with your bare hands. The toilet seat as the least likely place to get you sick because most people cover the toilet seat while they’re using it, and even if they don’t, their hands are not coming into contact with it.

But before you sit down, you have to choose which stall to use. A 1995 study about choices people make when they have identical options included preference for bathroom stalls, and the two middle stalls were the most popular — meaning the end stalls may be your best bet.

Where the germs are

public restroom stalls In terms of germs, you should be more worried about other surfaces than the seat. But we have to assume this is a men’s room or else, why is every single seat up? (Photo: Mindscape studio/Shutterstock)

The worst places in a public bathroom are the sink, the door handle, and of course, the floor. So what can you do to keep yourself germ-free?

The most important thing you can do is to wash your hands with soap and water. Put water and a dollop of soap on your hands, and prepare to work on that project for a while. (As they teach my son in school, it’s about the time it takes you to sing “Happy Birthday” two times). Then, once you dry your hands on a clean paper towel, use that paper towel to open the door. If you’re only option is to use an air dryer, be sure to stand there until your hands are actually dry as hand washers who give up too soon on the air dryer appears to be the dryer’s biggest downfall.

Avoid touching any surfaces in the bathroom, especially the floor. This means if you see a roll of toilet paper on the floor, don’t use it. And of course, don’t put your belongings on the floor either. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona who studied germs in public restrooms and earned himself the nickname Dr. Germ, found that one third of the women’s purses he looked at harbored fecal bacteria on the bottom.

So remember, next time you’re in a public bathroom, your single worst enemy in the bathroom is your own hands and the things they touch (not the toilet seat). Your single best defense? Washing those hands, and washing them well.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in January 2012.

What can I do to avoid germs in public restrooms?

What diseases can you catch from public restrooms, and more specifically, public toilets? And how can you avoid those germs?