How risky is using a public bathroom during the pandemic? – Harvard Health Blog

Given the choice between using a public bathroom and doing something else, some people will always choose the latter. Regardless of the urgency or purity of its report, the space comes with an ick factor, says Dr. John Ross, who practices hospital medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and is certified by the board of directors. in infectious diseases.

This image is difficult to shake even in normal times, but COVID-19 has done nothing to make public bathrooms more attractive, as they have very tactile surfaces and often toilets without a cover. Ross says it’s easy to see them as hotbeds of infection and avoid them in the name of security. But not using them has led people to reorganize their days, determine how many errands can be done in one trip, when to stop drinking water, and to prevent the possibility of socially distant visits with friends and relatives. .

Weighing risks against other indoor activities

There is no clear answer. Coronavirus requires each person to assess each situation, says Dr. Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases and vice chairman of the department of medicine at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, Massachusetts, and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Ross says that as an interior space, a public bathroom is not necessarily a safe environment, but it is also comparable to other interior spaces. In some ways it’s a lower level risk by comparison, but it comes down to the components. Air is a concern. A flush creates an aerosol (the toilet plume) and the virus exists in the stool. Taken together, and since the virus enters the body through the mucous membranes, this sounds worrisome, but Ross and Ellerin say research suggests otherwise.

A recent study of two hospitals in Wuhan, China, found that the highest concentration of aerosols was in a bathroom, although it noted that it was a temporary toilet room unique without ventilation. The study also found that disinfection and ventilation effectively limited the concentration of the virus in aerosols. Another recent study that analyzed samples from patients hospitalized with COVID-19 found that attempts to isolate the virus from stool samples were never successful and that the existing fragments were not infectious.

Ross adds that the flush is a one-time event and that all direct plume comes from a person’s excrement; if the virus were present, that person would already be infected. “Our own faecal plume poses no risk to us,” he says. If someone else in the bathroom blushes, there are barriers that block direct contact. “The risk of exposure to the bathroom is largely theoretical – possible, but not proven,” he says.

There are other elements at play that make the bathroom less risky than it seems. Your exposure time is a transmission factor. Ellerin says that if an unmasked interaction within six feet lasts less than 15 minutes and does not include coughing or sneezing, the risk of transmission is always low. Since most bathroom visits are likely to be shorter, “the weather is on your side,” he says. “Record long visits to your home.”

Another factor is the number of people you will be around. Ross says that more than the plume, coughing is a bigger concern. Wearing a mask provides a necessary layer for everything in the air. The barriers in the bathroom also keep people separate, which reduces the risk of face-to-face contact. “It’s also in your favor,” says Ellerin.

Ross says other indoor activities, which are more socially acceptable, may offer greater risk, such as going to bars, weddings, church services and indoor parties. They can all be well packaged. Music can play, causing people to bend over and talk to each other. Alcohol can make people relax and forget the distance, and when there is song, breaths are forced into the air. In many of these settings, masks may not be necessary and may not be worn, which further encourages spread.

So what is the best way to use a public bathroom?

The basic steps are: Put on a mask before entering. Wash your hands immediately afterwards. You can also wear glasses to protect your eyes. There are a number of high contact surfaces and the virus, as well as bacteria, can exist on them. It is good to minimize contact by using your foot or toilet paper when lifting, rotating or pulling anything, says Ross.

Contact before going to the bathroom isn’t as important as washing your hands, but even if you touch a surface, Ross says the virus won’t get through your skin. The main thing is not to touch your face, especially your mouth, nose or eyes, before washing. And before leaving, use your foot, elbow (if possible) or a paper towel to open the door, and once outside, spray your hands with a disinfectant.

Ellerin says don’t forget to clean your glasses and your cell phone. “Is your iPhone a major risk? Probably not, but it could be a potential source for some people, “he said. “This is the problem with COVID-19. We do not know, so it is good to disinfect very sensitive areas. Some people will take their own extra steps with cleaning, as this provides a greater sense of psychological confidence, as there is still a lot of uncertainty. “

But doing what is known, such as washing hands, wearing a mask, and minimizing close contact, while not ensuring safety, can help people consider options and resume lost activities. “When it comes to the bathroom,” says Ellerin, “follow basic hygiene, get in and out, and you’re probably in a low-risk group.”

For more information on the coronavirus and COVID-19, see the Harvard Health Publishing Coronavirus Resource Center.

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