Dear Straight Dope:
What EXACTLY can you catch from sitting on a toilet seat? I took an informal survey and asked several of my girlfriends if they sit on public toilet seats, and 9 of the 11 of them never do. When I asked why, all of them had some variation of "You never know what you can catch from a toilet seat." So, please clear this up for all of us women who are afraid to sit down in a public restroom.
Nicole Anderson, Millis, MA
SDStaff Jillgat replies:
You can get cooties, and that’s about it. Sexually transmitted diseases are spread via sexual intercourse with an infected person. Most of them are spread more easily from male to female. The diseases vary in how infectious they are, but none of them are spread on toilet seats (well, assuming you’re using the toilet seat for what it was intended). Most bugs don’t tend to live on cool, hard surfaces.
I could add that a couple of diseases – syphilis and herpes – can be spread by direct non-sexual contact with infectious lesions, so make sure there is not an infected person already on the toilet when you sit down. One should consider HOW people sit on toilet seats. Genital and anal infections most likely would not come in contact with the seat in normal use. Intact skin is a good barrier against most disease organisms … unless of course one were to pick up a bacterium or virus on the seat, then immediately plant their buttocks on someone’s nose and mouth. If this were to happen to me, disease transmission would be the least of my concerns.
As far as other kinds of diseases that have different routes of transmission, such as oral/fecal or airborne, the hands are more to blame for spreading these diseases than the bottom is. Shake hands with a carrier, touch your eyes or mouth, and voila! You’ve caught that person’s cold or influenza. Eat food prepared by a person with hepatitis A (who didn’t wash their hands after using the toilet), and hey, you’ve got hepatitis! I guess theoretically if you sat on feces on the seat, got some on your hands when you wiped yourself, then licked your fingers (mmm, mmm!) you could possibly get hepatitis A, but it isn’t a primary route of transmission. Urine doesn’t carry any common diseases that I know of, but I sure hate it when people leave the seat wet.
SDStaff Jillgat, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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