We can all agree that public restrooms can be gross. Who among us hasn't tried making a makeshift toilet seat cover with toilet paper before sitting down? But the myth that you can catch sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or diseases (STDs) from a toilet seat is just that: a myth.
Toilet seats have plenty of bacteria, but your chances of contracting an STI are slim to none. Your chances of getting infected with anything from a toilet seat are almost zero. Keep on reading to learn more.
How can you get an STD?
Most STIs are spread only through unprotected sexual contact with someone who has an infection or virus. This includes skin-to-skin contact, having oral sex, anal sex, or vaginal sex without using condoms or dental dams, or any act that involves exchanging genital secretions (like sharing sex toys).
There are a few exceptions, though. Chlamydia and some other STIs including herpes (HSV), for example, can be transmitted to a baby during childbirth if the mother has an active chlamydia infection. Viral STDs like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), human papillomavirus (HPV), and genital herpes can also be spread by sharing needles (which is why doing intravenous drugs is a risk factor for HIV). HIV can also be transmitted to a baby during pregnancy.
Can you get STDs from a toilet seat?
It's almost impossible to get a sexually transmitted disease from a toilet seat because the bacteria and viruses that cause sexually transmitted diseases can't survive on surfaces for that long. They can only live in a particular environment; a toilet seat won't cut it. So even if a toilet seat was contaminated with bodily fluids infected with an STI, the likelihood of that infection being passed onto someone else is almost zero.
On the very, very rare chance that a sexually transmitted infection somehow did survive on a toilet seat contaminated with infected body fluids, it would still have to find a way into the opening of your genitals (your urethral or genital tract). So the only way of catching it is if you rubbed your genitals or an open wound onto said toilet seat. This goes without saying, but please don't do that!
Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) assures that you can’t contract an STD (like HIV or herpes) from a toilet. By all means, keep practicing basic hygiene when you use the toilet, but don’t worry about catching an STI.
What kind of infections can you get from a toilet seat?
It doesn't take a germophobe to know that most toilet seats are brimming with disease-causing organisms. A 2017 study tested 151 samples from public toilet seats and found that E. coli, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus were the most common pathogens on the seats.
These bacteria and viruses are spread through the fecal-oral route, which means that fecal (poo) particles from an infected person can make someone else sick if they get in their mouth (if someone doesn’t wash their hands, then they touch food… you get the point) and cause symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, and a fever. So, please wash your hands after you poop!
So unless you're licking any toilet seats or rubbing open wounds against them, you'll be fine. A recent systematic review assessing the risk of transmission of viral or bacterial infections found that your chances of developing an infection from restroom surfaces are really low. The best way to prevent unwanted infections from a public bathroom is to simply wash your hands!
Toilet seats get a bad rap, but most surfaces we encounter daily harbor way more bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Research shows that a toilet seat is generally cleaner than many other items we touch regularly.
And it's worth remembering that simply coming into direct contact with bacteria doesn't mean you'll get an infection. Your skin acts as a protective barrier and stops harmful bacteria from taking over. So you can give your legs a break and stop hovering over the toilet seat next time you have to use a public restroom.
Signs of an STD
Most STIs are asymptomatic, which means a lot of people might have an STI and not know it. When they cause symptoms, they might be so mild that you don’t even notice them — or mistake them for something else, like a yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis (BV), or a urinary tract infection (UTI). That said, knowing what symptoms to look out for is helpful. Common signs of an STI can include:
- Abnormal vaginal discharge that might be white, yellow, gray, green, frothy, or have a foul or fishy smell.
- Pus in your urine
- A frequent need to pee
- A burning sensation when you pee
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Bleeding between periods or after sex
- Pelvic pain
- Itching or burning in and around your vagina.
Remember that many of these symptoms can be signs of something other than an STI. Speaking to your healthcare provider and taking an STI test is essential to get a proper diagnosis.
How to prevent STDs
It would be great if sex were all fun and games, but the frustrating reality is that there’s no way to prevent STIs entirely if you’re having sex. But you can reduce your risk of contracting one by doing a few things:
- Always use a condom and/or dental dam during oral, vaginal or anal sex.
- Wash toys before and after each use, especially when using them with a partner.
- Always use a new condom when switching between anal and vaginal penetration.
- Get regular STI tests. The CDC recommends getting screened once a year or more depending on how sexually active you are and how many sexual partners you have.
- Before having sex with someone new, ask them when they last got tested. We know this can be hard, but it’ll keep you both safe!
- Get vaccinated against HPV and hepatitis B.
How long can STDs live on surfaces?
The pathogens that cause STDs can only live outside the body for a few seconds at most, so you’re unlikely to contract an STD just by coming into contact with a contaminated surface. This also means you're unlikely to contract an STD from a toilet.
Can you get HPV off a toilet seat?
It's practically impossible to contract any sexually transmitted infections from a toilet seat. You can get genital warts (which are caused by HPV) from skin-to-skin contact with someone who has an active flare-up, but not from a toilet seat.
Is it safe to sit on a public toilet seat?
Generally, yes. Public toilets are no one’s idea of “hygienic”, but you don’t have to worry about catching an infection just by sitting on one. Research shows that your chance of contracting anything from a public toilet seat is really low. Of course, use your best judgment! If the toilet seat has noticeable poo stains on it, maybe give it a miss and use another toilet.