How Bad Is It Really to Sit on a Public Toilet Seat?

Photo: Getty Images / Murat Deniz
It doesn't take a genius to know that sitting bum-to-porcelain on a public toilet probably isn't the most sanitary choice. But come on: We all do it every once in a while. Squatting is a pain in the butt (literally), those paper toilet seat covers are useless, and my colleague noted earlier today: "Sitting on the toilet is just really nice." And, really, how bad can it be, right?

Well, according to experts, it's... not great (but also not a big deal). The myth that you can get an STI from a toilet seat has been debunked and you're highly unlikely to get any sort of disease, but public toilet seats are a hotbed for bacteria and you could potentially pick up an infection. "When you flush a toilet all that waste that’s in that toilet bowl is going down the tube and it’s aerosolized, so you can find a lot of bacteria and viruses in the environment around the toilet," says Michael Pentella, PhD, clinical professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa. And in fact, studies have found that this "toilet plume" contains E. coli, SARS, and norovirus. But you're probably not going to get sick just by sitting on the toilet.

"Sitting on the toilet isn’t a great risk because the pathogens in waste are gastrointestinal pathogens. The real risk is touching surfaces that might be infected with bacteria and viruses and then ingesting them because they’re on your hands," says Dr. Pentella. The real problem, then, is what happens outside the bathroom stall. If you're not washing your hands properly, you might transfer the germs to your mouth.

The only situation in which you might want to take extra precautions is when you have an open wound, like a cut on your butt. "When bacteria is on a surface, it likes to find a happy place, and sometimes that’s on a person," says confirms Ernest Brown, MD, founder of Doctors to You. If bacteria gets into an open wound, there's the potential for infection. If a minor infection starts off looking like pimple and then turns into angry red boils, it should be checked out by a doctor ASAP. But, again, the risk here is minimal. "If you’re healthy, your immune system is in good shape, and you have no wounds on the buttocks, then your skin should do all the work as the body's first layer of defense against infections," say Dr. Brown.

Since sprinting home every time you have to pee isn't exactly realistic (anyone remember that scene in American Pie?), or even necessary, Dr. Brown instead recommends traveling with antibacterial wipes to give a public toilet seat a once-over before you take a seat. If you're going to be using one of those toilet seat covers or layering some TP on the seat, make sure the area is totally dry. Squatting is more sanitary than sitting, but it's probably not an option if you're in the (always-fun!) scenario of pooping in a public restroom.

So is sitting on a public toilet seat going to kill you? No, certainly not. But after writing this story, I, for one, am giving serious consideration to a portable "Female Urination Device."

There are plenty of questions none of us want to ask out loud, but don't worry—we got you. Here's what to do if you accidentally get a tampon stuck. And this is why coffee makes you poop.

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