The Single Worst Place in Public That You Should Never Go

You have to heed nature's call, but doing so safely may prove trickier than you'd expect amid coronavirus.

As public spaces around the country continue to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, it feels like each newly opened location poses a new risk, from shopping in a crowded retail store to swimming in a pool with strangers. However, experts say there's one place you're more likely to encounter contamination than any other amid coronavirus: a public restroom.

So, why are public restrooms such a potential hotbed of coronavirus activity? "Public restrooms are generally dirty places," says Taylor Graber, MD, a resident physician at UC San Diego and founder of ASAP IVs. "View each of the surfaces in the bathroom as a source of contamination."

Since most public restrooms have multiple high-touch surfaces—areas where multiple potentially contaminated hands have made contact with the same surface—like sink taps, flush levers, and paper towel dispensers, it's easy for coronavirus to pass between multiple people in a short period of time. And considering the small space of a public restroom stall, it's easy enough for one person's contaminated respiratory droplets from a sneeze or cough to land on surfaces—or even other people in the restroom.

But just how contaminated are these surfaces? In one 2019 study published in Antimicrobial Resistance & Infection Control, in a sample of 55 public restrooms, researchers found 52 distinct species of bacteria, with high contamination levels on surfaces including door handles, paper towel dispensers, and hand dryers.

Of course, the coronavirus is a viral infection and not a bacterial one, but we do know that it can live on stainless steel for up to three days. So, a public restroom, with its stainless steel doors and faucets, creates the perfect storm for cross-contamination.

If you do happen to touch a sink tap or other multi-touch surface in a public bathroom, Graber cautions against touching your face, mucous membranes, or clothing until you have the chance to thoroughly wash your hands again. Once you're ready to head out, "use a paper towel or tissue to touch any surfaces—doors, faucets—in the bathroom before exiting," he suggests.

Bathroom door open looking at a toilet

Another concern with public restrooms and coronavirus? The lack of ventilation. We know that poorly ventilated indoor areas are risky places in terms of COVID-19. A study out of Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, found that "the odds that a primary case transmitted COVID-19 in a closed environment was 18.7 times greater compared to an open-air environment." And public restrooms aren't exactly known for having good air flow.

But that's not all, either. As it turns out, the aerosolization of fecal matter when one flushes the toilet can also spread the contagion. Prior studies have shown that toilet flushing aerosolizes infectious microbes into the air and those microbes stay airborne for at least a few minutes. Early research on COVID-19 also showed that bathrooms on cruise ships and bathrooms in hospitals were heavily contaminated places. So, one of the best things you can do in order to avoid the spread of COVID-19 is close the toilet seat before you flush.

As for the absolute best thing you can do? Use the bathroom before you leave the house. And if you want to know how you're putting yourself at risk, check out these 5 Sneaky Ways You're Exposing Yourself to Coronavirus.

Sarah Crow
Sarah Crow is a senior editor at Eat This, Not That!, where she focuses on celebrity news and health coverage. Read more
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