No matter how clean you think you are, the quantity and variety of germs that you would find on your hands at any given time would shock you.
Germs are spread every time we touch an object or a person. Not all of them are dangerous, and some bacteria are even helpful. However, your risk of getting sick is increased every time you use a public restroom, as evidenced by a 1996 study conducted by the American Society for Microbiology. They discovered that while 95% of the people surveyed said they washed their hands every time they used a public facility, only about 67% actually did.
A recent nationwide poll showed that 39% of respondents are worried about the germs lurking in public restrooms.
Is there a reason for concern?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, infectious disease is the number three killer of Americans. They report that 40 million Americans get sick from hand-carried bacteria every year, and 80,000 people die from those germs.
Germs thrive in moist areas, and live off organic waste, which can be found in nearly every public restroom.
What can you “catch” in a public restroom?
Many illnesses that are transmitted in public restrooms include the common cold and flu bugs, intestinal illnesses, and skin infections. There is also a potential danger of picking up the bacteria that can be fatal, from streptococcus, staphylococcus, salmonella, E. coli and even hepatitis A.
People also worry about picking up STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) from toilet seats. Out of all the concerns about germs in public restrooms, STD's are actually the least likely to be a problem. This fear may be due more to urban legend than to anything else. Most of the bacteria and viruses that cause sexually transmitted diseases cannot live long enough outside the body for transfer to occur.
There is a far greater risk of coming into contact with the salmonella and shigella bacteria, which can be transferred by contact with feces. The infected person can transfer the bacteria onto any surface he touches – such as toilet handles, sink faucets and door handles.
What should you look out for?
Over-crowded restrooms, wet floors or puddles, lack of available supplies (toilet paper, soap and paper towels) and foul-smelling odors are all signs of improper maintenance and should be a cause for concern.
Often the odor in public restrooms comes from dried urine in tile grout. Once dry, regular cleaners cannot remove the uric acid salts, and bacteria feed off them. (The odor comes from the bacteria’s digestive process.)
Germs – particularly fecal bacteria, can be shot into the air every time a toilet flushes. This bacterium settles on surfaces throughout the bathroom and is often enough to spread disease.
How can you protect yourself?
First of all, your mother was right. Wash your hands frequently throughout the day, using proven methods of hand washing (see below).
Do not touch your eyes, nose, face or mouth until you’ve washed your hands.
Carry waterless antibiotic hand washing gel with you.
If you’re going to be out and using public facilities, carry your own toilet paper with you.
Try not to use toilet paper that is sitting on the top of the holder, on the back of a toilet or on a shelf.
Never use toilet paper that is wet or damp, or looks as if it might have been wet at one time.
Because the inside surfaces of sinks harbor a large concentration of germs, don’t touch them.
Do not use your hands when you flush the toilet, turn on or off a tap or open the restroom door when leaving.
What about your bathroom at home?
If your home is like millions of others all across America, germs and bacteria are thriving everywhere in your bathroom, blissfully soaking up the nutrients they need on moist surfaces – everything from countertops to cups to toothbrushes to towels.
Bacteria can grow and divide every 20 minutes. A single bacteria cell can become more than 8 million cells in less than 24 hours!
These virus-causing microorganisms can be behind as many as ten colds per year for the average school-aged child. In fact, some cold and flu viruses can linger on surfaces like non-disposable rinsing cups and the inside of sink basins for up to 72 hours – giving them plenty of time to be shared among family members.
Examples of microorganisms that live in our bathrooms are:
- Bacteria: Salmonella causes food poisoning.
- Viruses: Rhinoviruses can cause colds. Herpes Simplex causes cold sores. Influenza brings the flu.
- Fungi: Trichophyton can cause Athlete’s Foot.
- Parasites: Giardia can cause diarrhea.
So how do you fight back?
Here are some simple tips:
Use disinfectants to wipe off all hard surfaces (except for mirrors).
You can use EITHER bleach or vinegar as a safe and effective disinfectant, but do not mix them together.
Use disposable cups.
Store toothbrushes in an upright position.
Pour vinegar down your drains once a week. (Drains are usually the prime breeding ground for germs in a bathroom)
Close the toilet lid before flushing.
Use a squeegee to wipe off shower and tub walls after use to prevent mildew.
Proven hand washing techniques:
1. Wet your hands and work up a good lather, using warm water. Spend at least 20 seconds, making sure that you clean your palms, between your fingers, the back of your hands, your wrists and under your nails. (Sing a chorus of “Row, row, row your boat” to make sure you’ve spent enough time.)
2. Rinse your hands thoroughly, again using warm water.
3. When drying your hands, use a paper towel when possible; because most people do not use a hand dryer long enough to completely dry their hands. Use the air dryer only if there is no alternative, and try not to touch the surface.
4. After drying your hands, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door, so that you don’t re-contaminate yourself.