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Where Are the Germs?

Do toilet seat covers really protect you from germs?

Answer (Published 6/1/2009)

I assume you're asking about those paper toilet seat covers found in public restrooms. They're unlikely to protect you from germs - not because they don't work, but because it's actually pretty hard to pick up a bug from a toilet seat. Most germs can't survive for very long on such a surface, so chances are remote that enough of them could get onto or into your body to cause problems. Bugs that cause sexually transmitted diseases get into your body via sexual contact. It's possible, but not at all likely, that if you had a cut or sore on your thighs or buttocks, you could pick up a superficial infection.

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A few years ago ABC News asked microbiologist Charles Gerba to check its bathroom. The dirtiest area, in terms of the numbers of bacteria per square inch, was the sanitary napkin disposal unit. Dr. Gerba also found 2 million bacteria per square inch, about 200 times the number found on sanitary surfaces, on the floor. The toilet seat turned out to be cleanest surface checked.

If you really want to avoid bathroom bugs, Gerba and Allison Janse, co-authors of The Germ Freak's Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu offer these suggestions:

  • Use the first stall in the public restroom. For privacy, people tend to go to stalls further along - but the neglected first one usually harbors fewer bacteria.
  • Never put your handbag on the floor - it will pick up germs that you then may transfer to your desk or kitchen counter.
  • Men's rooms tend to be messier - but more bacteria lurk in ladies' rooms (perhaps because women spend more time in restrooms and because they bring small children in, said Gerba).
  • Don't use the sanitary blower to dry your hands - in theory it could collect bacteria from the air and then deposits them on your hands.

Overall, the best way to protect yourself from germs in the bathroom and elsewhere, is to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. And then use the paper towel you dry with to turn off the faucet (another place bacteria collect) and to open the door as you leave. (Bugs can congregate on door knobs and handles.)

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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