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We all have that friend who’s a complete germaphobe. Mine refuses to touch public door handles, never goes out without a large bottle of hand sanitiser and views public toilets as her own personal hell.
When she does have to use them (and I’m talking serious emergencies only) she confesses she squats, too afraid of sitting down and catching something gross from the toilet seat “where thousands of strangers’ bums have been before”.
But are you really at risk of catching diseases from a toilet seat?
According to Professor Ross Coppel, Deputy Dean and Director of Research of the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at Monash University, the toilet seat is actually probably one of the safer surfaces in the bathroom — as long as it is clean and dry.
“It is difficult for bacteria to stick and survive on something clean and dry. Nevertheless you would certainly over time find various bacteria and viruses there,” he says. (Post continues after gallery.)
These include E. coli, of which there is a large amount in our intestines, and Staphyloccous (bacteria that cause staph infections) and Streptococcus species of various sorts which are commonly found on the skin.
“There have been reports of harmful bugs (pathogens) that are found in faeces such as Hepatitis A and shigella, but they are more likely to be on the taps and in the sink than on the toilet seat,” he explains.
“In a public toilet, it is the tap handles, the door handles and the continually wet surfaces that may harbour organisms. They may not be a pleasant place, but at least in a country like Australia, it is generally pretty safe.”
Can you get STIs from a public bathroom?
And if anyone has ever told you they caught an STI from a public bathroom, chances are they were not quite telling the truth.
“If someone told you that you can contract an STI from a toilet seat, their microbiology is poor,” explains Professor Coppel.
"The bugs that cause STIs are very fragile and don't survive at all well in the external environment. To contract an STI from a toilet seat, the organisms would need to enter an open cut in your skin or somehow get into your urethra or anus, something that doesn't occur in normal usage of a toilet," he says.
"However this also means that if you have an open cut on your bottom, it should be covered with a bandaid or some other dressing when using a toilet, particularly public ones, just to be on the safe side."
"Also, if someone tells you they have contracted an STI from a toilet seat, consider other more likely means of infection first before believing them," he says.
Where is the most bacteria-ridden place in your house?
Forget the bathroom; Professor Coppel says the most contaminated area in your house is the kitchen sink.
"Bacteria like damp or wet surfaces as a place to proliferate, and plates with food scraps provide great breeding grounds and may sit around for a while," he says.
"Dishes and boards contaminated with potentially infected material, such as raw chicken, and usually the sinks are just rinsed with water."
Your toothbrush, bathtubs and jacuzzis are frequently contaminated, while surfaces that get touched a lot like computer keyboards, salt and pepper shakers and the TV remote control would all be candidates.
Are germs all bad?
It's also important to remember that while bacteria can do us harm, the bacteria that normally live on or in us — our "microbiota" — actually do us good.
"These benefits include providing important nutritional benefits, making vitamins such as B and K and calming our immune systems to prevent autoimmune diseases," says Professor Coppel.
"So our current phobia about 'germs' and keeping the bathroom and the house especially clean may be harmful when taken to extremes."
Professor Coppel says that the very clean environment we now we live in is certainly thought to play an important role in the increased incidence of asthma and other allergies we see in society.
"Remember that we are exposed to bacteria and viruses all day, every day. Those of us with a healthy immune system very rarely get infected with anything," says Professor Coppel.
"Because bacteria are mainly harmless or beneficial to humans, their mere presence on objects in the home is not something to panic about. It is only when there is some form of infection in the household that you need to be vigilant in disinfecting surfaces, like using bleach," he explains. (Post continues after gallery.)
Professor Coppel adds that we all breathe in, swallow and touch bacteria and viruses constantly — "it is called 'living'" — yet in many cases, we rarely suffer infections.
"Those people unfortunate enough to have an immune deficiency have a much higher number of infections that are more serious but even they resist most of the organisms they are exposed to," he says.
"The best general practice to keep you healthy is to wash your hands well with soap and water for a good 20-30 seconds, rubbing across all the surfaces of your hands and under the nails."
Are you cautious about germs? Do you think we've become too focussed on clean?