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Simple Tricks to Avoid Bacteria and Viruses From Public Bathrooms

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Key Takeaways

  • Toilet flushing can potentially transport bacteria and viruses through airborne particles.
  • There's no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through toilet flushing, but diseases can spread through the fecal-oral route.
  • Researchers said maintaining hand hygiene is the best way to protect yourself from bathroom pathogens.

Most people don't close the toilet lid before they flush, especially in a public restroom.

A new study found that the power of toilet flush can transport potentially infectious bacteria and viruses through airborne particles. But it's unlikely someone will walk away from the bathroom with an active infection.

Researchers in Australia analyzed 38 studies from 13 countries that focused on surface contact, airborne, and fecal-oral routes of viral and bacterial transmission in public restrooms.

There's no documented report of airborne-related infections from public bathrooms. But a wide range of factors can contribute to heavy bacterial and viral loads in these places, such as flushing toilet with the lid open, ineffective hand washing, insufficient cleaning, defective plumbing, and uncovered trash cans.

Researchers also highlighted the risk of diseases spreading through the fecal-oral route, which usually happens when people don't wash their hands after using the toilet and then touch other surfaces.

The study underscored the importance of proper hand washing and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces in preventing COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.

“During the pandemic, people have been hesitant to use public washrooms due to the potential risk of COVID-19 transmission in these environments,” Sotiris Vardoulakis, PhD, a co-author of the study, told Verywell. “We wanted to examine if this risk was real or just perceived.”

Can You Get COVID-19 From Public Bathrooms?

In the beginning of the pandemic, health experts were unsure how COVID-19 could be transmitted, leaving many fearful of entering public places, especially public restrooms, the breeding grounds for many viruses and bacteria.

But health authorities have not documented COVID-19 cases from public restroom use. "Although flushing a toilet can generate a plume of aerosols that may carry gems, illnesses resulting from exposure to toilet plumes from flushing have also not been documented," the California Department of Public Health told Verywell.

The coronavirus has been found in the stools of some COVID-19 patients, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, there has not been any confirmed report of the virus spreading from fecal matter to a person.

The new study concluded that while it is possible for infectious pathogens to become airborne droplets through toilet flushing, vomiting, and the use of electric hand dryers, it's very unlikely to result in an infection or illness.

“We found no evidence of transmission of respiratory infections, such as COVID-19, in public washrooms with or without electric hand dryers,” Vardoulakis said, adding that hand washing with water and soap for at least 20 seconds will minimize transmission risk.

"If users keep up good hand hygiene, wear face masks where recommended, and the bathroom is well maintained, then the risk of COVID-19 transmission is low," he said.

How to Avoid Contracting Bathroom Pathogens

Although the toilet flush may not transmit COVID-19, the bathroom is hot spot for pathogens, such as Escherichia coli (E. coli), Shigella, and norovirus.

Contracting one of these infectious pathogens can result in serious illness, according to FoodSafety.gov, reporting symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain, and more.

While the symptoms of a pathogen illness can be treated with antibiotics, dehydration caused by loss of fluid from vomiting and diarrhea can quickly become dangerous if not treated right away. It's important to drink clear liquids like water and chicken broth and slowly add in sports drinks or herbal tea for rehydration.

Washing hands with soap and water after using the bathroom is the best defense against contagious pathogens in public restrooms. 

In addition to hand washing, Vardoulakis outlined several tips to help keep people healthy and safe when using public bathrooms:

  • Carry hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes in case facilities lack soap or running water.
  • Limit time spent in a public washroom in a single visit (less than 15 minutes).
  • Close the toilet lid before flushing; leave restroom stall immediately after flushing.
  • Avoid eating, smoking, drinking or using a mobile phone in the restroom stall.
  • Maintain physical distance from other users and avoid crowded publish restrooms.

What This Means For You

Be mindful of the surfaces you touch while you're in the restroom and always wash your hands for 20 seconds using soap and water. 

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Vardoulakis S., Espinoza D., Donner E. Transmission of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases in public washrooms: A systematic review. Science of The Total Environment. doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.149932

  2. Suen LKP, Siu GKH, Guo YP, Yeung SKW, Lo KYK, O’Donoghue M. The public washroom - friend or foe? An observational study of washroom cleanliness combined with microbiological investigation of hand hygiene facilitiesAntimicrobial Resistance & Infection Control. 2019;8(1):47. doi:10.1186/s13756-019-0500-z

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 Science Update. Published September 2020.

  4. FoodSafety.gov. Bacteria and Viruses. Updated March, 2021.