Health Care

Is It Safe to Use Public Bathrooms?

A man washing his hands in a public restroom.
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Parks and restaurants are reopening. Travel in the United States is becoming more feasible. With all that moving around comes a key question: Where do you go when you have to go?

It’s common to wonder whether public bathrooms are safe and whether you can stop to use them at rest areas, gas stations or similar facilities.

Right now, experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stress that the main way novel coronavirus spreads is through person-to-person contact. There are reasons to stay alert in public restrooms — but also steps you can take to reduce your chances of being exposed to the virus when you’re using them.

Are Public Restrooms Open?

Many of them are. In fact, some cities have opened additional emergency restrooms and hand-washing stations for people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them. In addition, some cities have added mobile hand-washing stations to existing public restrooms.

The CDC recommends that when parks and other recreational spaces are open, park officials keep restrooms available as well. However, that isn’t always the case; restrooms at parks in some areas remain closed. If you’re visiting a park and counting on bathroom facilities, call ahead to see if they’ll be available.

When they’re open, toilets should function properly, the CDC says. The facilities should be well stocked with running water, soap, and hand dryers or paper towels, or hand sanitizer. Still, you’ll want to bring your own hand sanitizer with you, just in case.

Many rest areas and gas stations are open, too. Bathroom breaks on car trips do put you at risk for exposure to individuals who have the virus and contaminated surfaces, according to the CDC. But if you have to travel, you can take steps to minimize your risk.

Stay Safe by Remaining Socially Distant

Novel coronavirus spreads mainly, and very easily, from person to person. Those with the virus produce respiratory droplets when they talk, cough or sneeze, the CDC says.

These droplets can spread to anyone who’s within about 6 feet. That’s why it’s important to stay that far away from others anywhere you are, including public restrooms. And if you’re sick, you should stay home so that you don’t spread germs to others.

You — and others — can spread the virus even before you have symptoms or know you are infected. You can prevent the spread of coronavirus to other people by wearing a cloth face covering in public. The CDC recommends wearing them anywhere it is difficult to stay distant, including gas stations.

How Dangerous Are Faucets and Door Handles?

In one study published in the medical journal JAMA, the toilets, sinks and door handles of hospital rooms housing COVID-19 patients were found to be contaminated. However, swabs tested negative for coronavirus after the surfaces were cleaned with a chlorine solution. In another study, viable novel coronavirus was found on plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours.

These facts demonstrate why the CDC recommends bathroom facilities be cleaned and disinfected at least daily. Cleaning doesn’t kill germs — but it removes many of them, thereby reducing the risk of spreading COVID-19, the CDC notes. Using an EPA-registered disinfectant after cleaning destroys any remaining virus.

In order to be infected by touching a contaminated surface, you have to touch the virus, then touch your mouth, nose or possibly your eyes, the CDC says.

So in addition to careful cleaning, it’s important to avoid touching your face without washing your hands. And just as a reminder — wash them for 20 seconds with soap and water or use hand sanitizer.

Can Toilet Spray Make You Sick?

A study of novel coronavirus found evidence that, in certain cases, it can be aerosolized. This means it might be spread through the air.

A research review published several years ago — long before COVID-19 appeared — suggests aerosol spray from toilets can spread infectious pathogens. In addition, COVID-19 has been found in the feces of some patients diagnosed with the condition, the CDC says.

There’s no evidence that another person has caught coronavirus from exposure to waste. Still, these findings together have caused some researchers to call for caution in restrooms.

You may be able to minimize the risk by closing the toilet lid when you flush. Natural ventilation can also help, so if it’s possible, choose restrooms with open windows or vents.

The Bottom Line: Basic Steps Keep Your Family Safe

Regardless of where you are, the fundamental steps for reducing your risk for COVID-19 remain the same, the CDC says:

  • Check in with your physician and stay home if you have fever, cough or other symptoms of COVID-19.

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.

  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your elbow.

  • Wash your hands frequently, including after using the bathroom.

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