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Using public toilets may leave you wondering about other people's hygiene habits, but the chances of picking up an infection are low.

If you cringe at the idea of microbes lurking on toilet seats, faucet handles, and door knobs in toilet facilities in malls, parks, convenience stores, restaurants, and (horrors!) truck stops, chances are you wait to use the bathroom at home whenever possible. But if you just have to "go" when you are on the go, don't worry, chances are you aren't going to catch any germs.

Is There a Factual Basis for Bathroom Paranoia?

It's not like there weren't lots of different kinds of germs in public restrooms. The natural home of E. coil is, after all, feces. Everyone's bowel movements involve movement of E. coli. Most strains of this bacterium, fortunately, don't cause disease.

Everyone's skin harbors some staph bacteria. These are easily transferred from person to person. Fortunately, most strains of staph don't cause disease, either.

Public toilets host Streptococcus and GIardia bacteria (the latter organism causing an especially unpleasant kind of diarrhea with a condition known as "purple burps"), colds viruses, hepatitis A, and some of the organisms that cause sexually transmitted diseases, including gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis. However, these organisms don't necessarily survive long enough on flat, hard surfaces to cause the next user of the toilet disease.

How Long Do Common Germs Survive in Public Bathrooms?

Different germs survive for different lengths of time in different places in public toilet facilities. Let's take a look at which germs you are most likely to encounter.

  • E. coli in large numbers can cause symptoms like those of food poisoning. It's most often acquired by actually ingesting contaminated feces that gets into your food either at a meat packing plant (when the "guts" of the animal are not separated from other parts during butchering) or from the hands of food workers who do not wash their hands after they use the toilet. About five percent of public toilets harbor this germ, but you would get it by being splashed with the water the toilet uses to flush. Even if the toilet bowl is empty, the rinse water can transmit the germ. However, you won't be infected unless this water finds its way into your mouth.
  • Shigella is the microorganism that causes shigellosis, a particularly unpleasant form of diarrhea that usually causes blood in stools, fever, abdominal cramps, and some vomiting. This diarrhea can last up to three weeks. This is a condition you are not especially likely to encounter in the North America, Australia, or Europe except when there is a water shortage and multiple people defecate into the same toilet without flushing. However, there are 165 million cases and 1 million deaths from this disease every year worldwide. It can be transmitted by the splash of water from the bowl.
  • Giardiasis is caused by a protozoan, a one-celled animal, that can survive for long periods rolled up as a cyst. It's typically something people get by contact with animal waste, although there are groups of homosexual men who, how to put this, transmit the disease during intimate activities (up to 20% of gay men in some locations in the United States). Giardiasis causes several weeks of diarrhea with a condition known as "purple burps." It's important to avoid swallowing the cysts. If you don't engage in anal-oral sex, you'll avoid this problem by never drinking from streams in the wild, no matter how pristine they appear, and by washing after you use a public toilet.
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