For many people, public bathrooms are an option of last resort – a sentiment that’s only been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, if you’re out shopping, spending time at the park or traveling along interstates, you may have little choice.
“There are probably going to be times when you have to use a public bathroom,” says Angela Harris, infection control manager at Tidelands Health. “You can do so safely, but you’ll want to make sure to take precautions.”
For example, Harris says, it’s a good idea to wipe down the toilet seat before sitting down and to close the lid before flushing.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t documented any COVID-19 cases associated with the use of public restrooms, the coronavirus has been detected in the feces of infected people, and a recent study found that flushing a toilet can release aerosols into the air as high as 3 ½ feet.
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“Closing the toilet seat before flushing is a wise thing to do,” Harris says. “If there’s no lid, step back as far as you can before flushing and exit the stall right away.”
In addition to closing the lid before flushing and wiping down the seat, Harris says there are other steps people should take to protect themselves from COVID-19 and other illnesses when using public bathrooms:
- Minimize touching things with your hands as much as possible. Open and close doors with your foot or knee instead of your hands or fingers.
- If you need to touch something with your hands, use toilet tissue or paper towel to create a barrier, then immediately discard the tissue or paper towel.
- Scrub your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before leaving the bathroom. Use a piece of paper towel to open the door when leaving.
- Be prepared. Carry hand sanitizer with you as an alternate way of cleaning your hands after using the facilities in case soap and water aren’t available.
- Avoid automatic hand dryers, which can help spread droplets and particles around the bathroom.
- Prepare children for how to safely use a public restroom before visiting one. Show them the process and practice at home. Reinforce the importance of not touching surfaces and use disinfectant wipes to clean surfaces they might touch while using the toilet.
- Refrain from placing personal belongings, such as a purse or cell phone, on countertops, floors or on ledges inside bathroom stalls, which can harbor contaminants. Instead, hang your purse around your neck and keep personal items in your pockets. Better yet, try to avoid bringing personal items into the restroom at all.
It’s also important to avoid close contact with other people by maintaining social distancing outside and inside the bathroom, Harris says. If there’s a line, try to find another bathroom, and be sure to wear a face mask or cloth face covering in alignment with CDC guidelines.
“Public bathrooms might not be the most comfortable places, but they can be used safely if you follow the proper precautions,” Harris says. “Incorporate these safety practices into your routine not only to protect yourself from COVID-19, but from other bacteria and viruses that may be present.”