Staying safe in public bathrooms—a COVID primer

When you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go. But in the age of COVID-19, simply going to a public bathroom isn’t quite so simple.

Without a doubt, there is a heightened risk to public bathroom usage in the middle of a global pandemic. But that doesn’t mean you can’t mitigate your risk. Let’s discuss the new things you should consider when going out in public spaces, and common-sense tactics for staying healthy while you do.

Public bathroom use in a COVID-positive world—risk is the new normal.

There is no sense sugarcoating it—even well-cleaned, well-ventilated public bathrooms harbor germs and viruses. They’re in the air from people breathing in close proximity to each other. They’re also in feces, which can get aerosolized every time a toilet is flushed without the lid down. They get blown around on the walls and floor when people dry their hands with an air blower. And let’s not even get started on the germy counters, door handles and latches.

Staying safe in public bathrooms—a COVID primer.

All the risks are enough to make some people resort to buying on-the-go urinals and portable toilets. That’s one way to go, but not exactly convenient. Luckily, there are some things you can do to navigate a public bathroom safely. And the good news is, these days, most people won’t think you’re a germaphobe if you do them. Here’s my recommendations:

  • Wear a mask. Your greatest danger is breathing COVID droplets that may be in the air. A mask cuts your risk significantly.
  • If your bathroom has a fan, turn it on. Whatever you can do to turn over the air in this space is a good thing.
  • Don’t linger. To the extent that you can, get in and out of the bathroom as quickly as possible. The more you can limit your contact with others in public spaces, the better.
  • Wipe down the seats. Consider taking baby wipes or anti-bacterial/viral wipes with you to clean the seats before you sit (be sure to discard wipes in the trash and never flush in the toilet). In lieu of those, line the seat with toilet paper. Some facilities even provide toilet seat liners. The same can be said for baby changing stations. Clean the surface with a wipe and if you have a mat you can bring to use as a liner, do so.
  • Remember handles and latches can be contaminated. You can use toilet paper to cover your hand when you flush the toilet or use the door handle. But the most effective way to prevent the spread of germs is by cleaning your hands after touching contaminated surfaces.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after going to the bathroom. This is the most important tip of all! Dry your hands with a disposable towel if possible.

You truly can go out in public, if you take the proper precautions, and limit your exposures. If you have any questions, talk to your primary care physician or nurse practitioner. We’re always happy to brainstorm ways to keep you healthy in changing times.

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Sarah Bishop

Sarah Bishop is the director for the Infection Prevention and Control program at UofL Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. She has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from University of Louisville and Master of Science in Nursing, Clinical Nurse Specialist, degree from Vanderbilt University. Sarah holds certifications in critical care and infection control. She is an active member of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC), serving as a legislative representative and board member for her local APIC chapter and a Communications Committee member for the national APIC organization.

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