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Put a lid on germs: Preventing infections from toilet seats
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Put a lid on germs: Preventing infections from toilet seats

Pathogens residing in the toilet seat can cause infections if one touches their face after using the restroom. Cleaning the seat after every use and maintaining basic hygiene are crucial

Common infections resulting from your toilet seat include diarrhea, UTIs and typhoid

For those wary of public toilets, there are times when they are left with no other choice but to use them. Typically a breeding ground for bacteria and other pathogens, one can prevent infections by limiting exposure through some precautionary measures and maintaining hygiene.

It’s easy to catch infections from a toilet seat when people forget to wash their hands and maintain basic hygiene, be it at home or in public places, says Dr Sagaya Anthony Susai Arul, consultant physician, Prashanth Hospitals, Chennai. “Apart from the toilet seat, pathogens also reside in doorknobs, taps, faucets and even the flush handle. One cannot contract an infection just by sitting on the toilet seat; there must be direct contact of the genitalia with the seat where the pathogen is present,” he explains.

He also shares that bacteria are often transmitted through the stool of an infected person. When the individual flushes, the pathogen droplets disperse almost five feet above, landing on the toilet seat.

Common infections resulting from toilet seats

According to experts, commonly found pathogens on toilet seats include Shigella, E. coli, Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, Salmonella and the hepatitis B virus. “The Staphylococcus bacteria can stay on the toilet seat for a few hours to a few days, causing skin infections and rashes. Apart from it, other pathogens like E. coli, Shigella and Salmonella can stay on the seat for eight to nine hours, increasing the risk of diarrhea, urinary tract infections [especially in women] and typhoid,” says Dr Subrata Das, senior consultant, internal medicine and diabetology, Sakra World Hospital, Bangalore. He adds that such a duration is sufficient for infections to be transmitted, as many people will use public toilets during this period. “At home, one individual can infect everyone in the family if the toilet seat is not cleaned after every use,” he cautions.

Dr Arul says that a toilet seat is like a fomite — a surface that can harbor and transmit pathogens. “Any bacteria or virus can survive for an extended period on such surfaces and infect anyone that comes in contact with them. This can happen at home as well as in public toilets,” he elaborates, further sharing that most bacterial infections resulting from toilet seats cause gastrointestinal (GI) issues. However, if there’s a scratch or wound near the leg, it can give rise to skin infections if exposed to the pathogens. 

How does one become infected?

“Pathogens present in the toilet seat can only spread through direct contact,” says Dr Arul. Those who touch their face after handling the commode, faucet, flush handle or doorknob usually get infected. “Hence, it’s crucial to wash your hands and face every time you use the restroom,” he cautions.

Indian toilets: Are they safe?

Indian toilets are typically less likely to cause infections compared to western commodes as one doesn’t come in contact with their surface, says Dr Arul. “However, when people bend down to pour water in the Indian toilet, there are chances of pathogen-containing microdroplets landing on their hands and faces,” he cautions. 

How to prevent infections?

While the toilet seat should ideally be cleaned after every use, such practices are not followed in public toilets, says Dr Das. “However, one can wipe the seat with tissue paper or place it on the seat before use. While this may not provide complete protection from infections, it will certainly lower their chances. Additionally, using disinfectant sprays or alcohol wipes on toilet seats will also help,” he elaborates.

Emphasizing the importance of hygiene, he advises, “One of the best ways to stay infection-free is to maintain good hygiene. Clean your genital area and wipe it with a tissue after using the toilet.”

Dr Arul recommends putting the toilet lid down while flushing, as it can prevent water droplets from spilling outside.

Diagnosis and treatment

Most of these infections can be detected through urine cultures as well as blood and stool tests. “One must consult a physician if they experience fever, a burning sensation while urinating, diarrhea or stomach pain. Neglecting these signs can result in complications such as pyelonephritis [inflammation of the kidney due to a bacterial infection] and bloody diarrhea, often caused by Shigella,” cautions Dr Das.

Antibiotics are the common treatment option, says Dr Arul. “These infections usually respond well to antibiotics. However, most people with mild infections recover in two to three days without any medication. Those with diarrheal symptoms require oral rehydration solution and need to increase their fluid intake to restore the electrolyte imbalance,” he adds.

Takeaways

  • Pathogens can linger on the toilet seat, tap, faucet and flush handle for extended periods. Those who don’t maintain basic hygiene can become infected as a result.
  • Pathogens typically found on toilet seats include Shigella, coli, Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, Salmonella and the hepatitis B virus.
  • People can get infected by touching their face after coming in contact with surfaces that contain pathogens. Hence, maintaining hand hygiene and washing the face are crucial every time one uses the restroom.
  • Cleaning the toilet seat after every use is vital to prevent infections. In the case of public toilets, wiping the seat with tissue paper or applying disinfectant sprays before use can lower the chances of infections.

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