A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Surviving public restrooms: What you and your kids should know

Public bathroom bacteria hazard 5-31 feature

Hand washing is the most important element of using any restroom, public or private.

Public restrooms can be some of the most repulsive places known to mankind. But despite their grime, slime, smell and suspiciously damp quality, they do not pose any serious health risk to you or your kids.

“It’s really like any other public place,” said Dr. Alissa Murch, a Marshfield Clinic pediatrician. “Most bacteria that are dangerous to people really can’t live on bathroom surfaces.”

Murch said it is possible some viruses could survive on bathroom surfaces, but the likelihood you would contract them is low. Viruses are typically spread by contact, which means you would have to contact the virus and then it would have to spread to your nose, mouth or eyes.

Lather, rinse, repeat

Murch said the most important thing adults or children can do to stay healthy when using public restrooms is to practice good hand washing. This discourages the spread of any viruses you come in contact with.

Because of the number of people who use them, there may be more kinds of bacteria in a public restroom than your private bathroom.

“Still, if you cultured your bathroom at home, you’d find lots of different bacteria,” Murch said.

She said the liners sometimes available to put on a public toilet seat are fine to use, but certainly cannot take the place of good hand washing.

“If you had an open sore or wound on the back of your leg, then the liners might be a good idea,” Murch said. “But otherwise your skin does a good job of protecting you from germs on the toilet seat.”

What to tell your kids about public restrooms

Murch has some simple advice for parents:

  • The bathroom is not a place to play.
  • It’s a place to take care of our business.
  • We always wash our hands.

What if it’s a really nasty restroom?

We’ve all been in public restrooms where there’s paper towel all over the floor, the soap dispenser is broken, and it looks like the toilets haven’t been cleaned since flip phones were all the rage. In this situation, is it better to skip washing your hands so you don’t touch any more surfaces than necessary?

“If there is paper towel and soap and water, I would say you should wash your hands and use the paper towel to touch other surfaces,” Murch said. “If you don’t have paper towel available, it might be a better idea to leave and wash your hands in a more sanitary space.”

While not always easy on the eyes or nose, you and your kids will do just fine in public restrooms as long as you wash your hands.

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