The Worst Thing You're Doing in Public Bathrooms, Infectious Disease Doc Warns

Here's where germs collect, and how to avoid getting sick from them.

It's rarely anyone's first choice to use a public bathroom, but when nature calls, it may be your only options. Sometimes, public restrooms are sparkling clean to the eye (and to the nose). Other times… not so much. If you find yourself using a public bathroom in any condition, you can reduce your exposure to germs like E. coli, Salmonella, and norovirus using some common sense and a bit of creative maneuvering. Read on to find out what to do—and what not to do—to avoid letting those germs make you sick, according to Thomas Russo, MD, a professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo.

RELATED: The Worst Thing You're Touching at Walmart, Infectious Disease Doc Warns.

The worst thing you can do in a public bathroom is touch knobs and handles.

Clean public restroom

Among all of the unpleasant-seeming places in a public bathroom, any of the handles in the room should be the area of top concern, Russo says. These high-touch surfaces—including the door handles, stall handles, and toilet flush handle—are all places where many people's hands frequently make contact.

"We know we have to wash our hands when we go to the bathroom, but it's comical when you think about it" that you get them dirty again immediately after you open the door, Russo notes. That is, unless you take proper precautions.

RELATED: Never Do This on a Plane, Infectious Disease Doctor Warns.

Use a napkin or piece of clothing to cover your hand before touching handles.

Public bathroom

Instead of reaching out and touching that handle directly, Russo recommends covering the handle with a paper napkin or your sleeve or sweater as a barrier. "Depending on the direction of the doors, I usually use my elbow if possible, or the inside of my jacket, but I try not to touch those surfaces with my hands so that I don't have to worry," he says.

But really, avoid handles altogether if possible.


Even better than protecting your hands when you use a handle? Skipping it altogether if possible. "Guys can go to a urinal and actually not touch anything, and a lot of them have automatic flushing mechanisms," Russo says. "Women have to touch a stall handle, but you could try [to hook it] with your elbow" for a touch-free entry.

RELATED: For more health advice delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Wash your hands vigorously after using a public bathroom.

man washing his hands at the sink

Don't freak out even if you've had no choice but to touch every single door and appliance handle in the room, Russo says. "Because if there's any concern at all, or if you feel uncomfortable, or if you know you had to touch that door handle because you weren't able to get around it with those sort of tricks—just go ahead and wash your hands," Russo says. And that's something you should be doing anyway—frequently—when you're in public spaces.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends lathering hands with soap and scrubbing for at least 20 seconds (singing "happy birthday" twice will do the trick, a rule of thumb that has been commonly applied amid the COVID-19 pandemic).

And so that you don't sully the hands you've just cleaned, use your elbow or your foot to push the door on your way out.

RELATED: You Should Never Clean Your Toilet With This, Experts Warn.

Alesandra Dubin
Alesandra Dubin is a lifestyle editor and writer based in Los Angeles. Read more
Filed Under