Ask Dr. Dave: Can You Get Diseases From a Toilet Seat?

Toilet seats are nasty. I don’t know what’s worse, finding a toilet seat covered in urine, or flushing a toilet and noticing it has one of those high-powered flushers that ends up spraying little droplets all over the toilet seat, and knowing that the next person to walk into that bathroom is going to think that you peed all over the toilet seat.

It wasn’t me, ladies! It was the high-powered toilet flusher!

Back to the question: Can you get diseases from the toilet seat? I assume we’re talking about the sexually transmitted variety. I have to have to share this quotation from the former president of the American Society for Microbiology, which I found on WebMD: “To my knowledge,” she said, “no one has ever acquired a (sexually transmitted disease) on the toilet seat—unless they were having sex on the toilet seat!”

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I’ve not done the research myself, because of this next factoid: In the late 1970’s, a group of clinician scientists sampled dozens of toilets to see if they could find gonorrhea living on a public restroom toilet.

They did not. Turns out none of the common STDs live long enough outside the body to make it into these scientists’ personal collections.

But they did find a whole lot of other bacteria that commonly hangs out on skin: staphylococcus (bacteria that can cause staph infections such as food poisoning, or the dreaded MRSA), streptococcus (bacteria responsible for various skin infections) and enterobacteriaceae (normal bacteria in the gut).

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Can you get these and other diseases from the toilet seat? Maybe. But you have the same risk of getting diseases from a doorknob, a handrail, or from giving a high five to that guy at work.

The point is, the same bacteria that show up on the toilet seat from pee, poop, and butt skin end up on pretty much every other surface. A recent study showed that only 32 percent of men wash their hands after using a public bathroom. Women were twice as likely to wash up at 65 percent.

When people don’t wash their hands, the whole world becomes a giant toilet seat. Gross!

However, before you slip on the rubber gloves for public outings, know this: The only way most of these things can get you sick is if you stick your hands in your mouth before washing them. Skin is the strongest part of your immune system, and as long as you’ve got skin on your butt, you have some measure of protection—even if the last person to use the toilet had (ahem) a high-powered toilet flusher situation.

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Dave Margolius is a physician in San Francisco, California. He is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, and attended Brown University for undergrad and med school. He is currently doing his residency in internal medicine at UCSF. His main interests are in health policy, improving primary care, and healthcare for all.

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