Can You Get a Disease From a Toilet Seat?

Can You Get a Disease From a Toilet Seat?

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Today’s question might be interesting to you if you avoid public bathrooms or are concerned about toilet hygiene in general: Can you get a disease from a toilet seat?

The world is filled with disgusting toilets. You might personally prefer toilets that smell okay and aren’t covered in filth, but try thinking about that when you really need to use the bathroom.

So put simply, is there a disease risk from sitting on a toilet?

Can you get a disease from a toilet seat?

We reached out to a number of experts in microbiology and immunology for help in answering those questions. The odds of getting sick from the wrong toilet are slim, we learned, but it is definitely possible — and you should probably keep your toilet clean regardless.

Assistant Professor of microbiology and immunology at Drexel University William Dampier had this to say on the matter:

“For a healthy individual, the likelihood of actually getting a disease from a toilet seat is pretty small. Your skin has a lot of barriers against things from the outside, and is pretty good at keeping out bacteria. If you had some sort of infection or rash already, you could probably get a staph infection or something like that, but you would have to already have some sort of break in the skin for that to happen. I don’t want to say it’s impossible — it’s possible — but I think the likelihood that any given sit on a toilet seat will result in an infection is probably very small.”

He added:

“I could see if you had a very dirty toilet seat, you could potentially get a staph infection, and there are staph infections nowadays that are resistant to antibiotics. But those tend to be found in hospitals, not in the wild.The only cases I’ve read [involving someone getting a disease from a toilet seat] were contact-dermatitis type things, and that’s usually in children, where they’re having some sort of allergic reaction or diaper rash that gets irritated by either the plastic or the cleaning fluid that’s used. But that’s also not particularly common, and people grow out of it pretty quickly. At least in the case studies, I haven’t seen any instance of somebody contacting [an infection] from a toilet seat, and that is the type of thing that somebody would write up as a case report. I’d take the lack of evidence there as evidence of it not really happening.”

It’s good to know that our bodies (if healthy) have a natural resistance to diseases that may sit on dirty toilet seats, but it’s worrying to hear that line about antibiotic-resistant staph infections. Luckily, as he said, those are more likely to be found in hospitals.

Let’s get a second opinion. Columbia University’s Professor of microbiology and immunology Vincent Racaniello had this to say about diseases from toilet seats:

“I would say that sitting on a toilet can get you a serious E. coli urinary tract infection. E. coli are normal inhabitants of our intestinal tract, but some strains can cause urinary tract infections and some can spread into other tissues beyond the urinary tract. The problem is that faecal contamination of the urinary tract is frequent due to the proximity of these systems. It is far more common in women than men for anatomical reasons: the urethra is shorter in women than in men, making it easier for the bacteria to get to the bladder. In men urine is more likely to flush out the bacteria. This changes as men age when their incidence of urinary tract infection rises.”

He added:

“Here is a story related to me by Doctor James Johnson during an interview I conducted with him: An elderly man was hospitalised with a serious urinary tract infection caused by E. coli that involved his kidneys. His daughter visited him in the hospital, used the toilet in his room, and some time later she developed a urinary tract infection which involved her kidneys, and lead to her hospitalisation. Lab analysis revealed that she had been infected with the same strain of E. coli as her father. The likely scenario is that the toilet seat was contaminated with her father’s urine containing the bacteria, which she then picked up from the seat or perhaps even the water.”

And to conclude:

“It’s a good idea to wipe down the toilet seat with a sanitiser but that still leaves the water, which can be contaminated and which might splash up on you. And don’t forget that the toilet generates an aerosol when flushed, and the aerosol can be inhaled. Despite these hazards, the toilet is still one of the greatest inventions of humanity, allowing us to escape countless infections caused by the previous practice of dumping our excrement into the streets.”

So to stay the most vigilant, definitely wipe down toilet seats with sanitiser before use, although be aware that this may not remove harmful bacteria. Additionally, diseases like E. coli pose a greater risk to women than men, due to the shorter urinary tract.

Let’s top it all off with one more opinion – Associate Professor of microbiology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina Laura Kasman had this to say:

“Theoretically, yes, but it would be really unlikely. If you had an open cut or sore on your backside that touched the seat, and someone not too long before you had an infection that touched the seat in the same place as your cut or sore, then yes, you could catch the infection. The most likely culprits would be Staph bacteria, human papillomaviruses that cause warts, or herpes simplex. One solution: Sit on your hands so they are between your bottom and the seat, and then wash them real well with soap before you leave the bathroom. (You should wash them real well anyway.) Works for cold seats too.”

If I’m understanding the responses from these experts well enough, then the risk of picking up a disease from a toilet seat is low – but it’s not impossible. The risk of it happening goes up if you have an exposed cut or sore on your backside, if the surface hasn’t been disinfected, or if you’re unhealthy.

Toilet seat diseases, explained

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Ask Giz is a fortnightly series where we answer your questions, be it tech, science, gadget, health or gaming related. This is a reader-involved series where we rely on Gizmodo Australia’s audience to submit questions. If you have a question for Giz, you can submit it here. Or check out the answer to our last Ask Giz: Why Do We Have Butts?

This article has been updated since it was originally published.

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