Toilet seats are not likely to transmit germs to users

Medial Matters

Washing hands after touching surfaces usually enough to stay healthy

December 08, 2006|By Judy Foreman | Judy Foreman,Sun Columist

I know you can't catch AIDS from a toilet seat. What can you catch?

Not much. You stand a much better chance of catching something nasty from the germs living in your kitchen sponges than from anything on your toilet seat, said Dr. Iain Fraser, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The image of the toilet seat as a carrier of noxious material "is more an aesthetic problem than a health problem," said Dr. John Bartlett, an infectious disease specialist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

To be sure, if there is fecal matter on the toilet seat and you touch the seat with your hands and then put your hands in your mouth, you may catch an intestinal bug such as salmonella or E. coli. Urine on the seat is probably harmless because urine is usually sterile.

If you have open cuts on your buttocks or thighs, bacteria on the seat could get into your body through the skin, "but this would be a very unusual way of transmission," Fraser said.

In theory, you could catch a cold from exposure to a toilet seat, but someone would have to sneeze on the seat, then you would have to touch the seat with your hands and then rub your mouth, nose or eyes.

On top of that, toilet seats and other hard surfaces are not good carriers of germs.

"That's not an area where bacteria can live long or well," Bartlett said. "Skin to skin is a much better transmitter of bugs than windshields or walls or toilet seats.

In other words, to reduce the chances of getting sick, change kitchen sponges often, wash your hands after you touch surfaces that people with colds also touch (such as phones, doorknobs and subway grab bars), and wash your hands after you use the bathroom for basic hygiene. But don't worry about catching things from just sitting on the toilet seat.

Are there homeopathic or herbal alternatives to the flu vaccine?

No, not when it comes to genuine prevention.

Some people shy away from getting the flu vaccine because they think it will give them the flu, or because of unfounded fears about a mercury-containing preservative called thimerosal found in some vaccines.

Numerous studies have failed to find any basis for the concern that thimerosal is linked to autism or learning disorders in children. For parents who worry, there are thimerosal-free vaccines for kids.

The concern that getting a flu shot will give you the flu is "absolutely ridiculous, ridiculous," said Dr. Alfred De Maria, chief medical officer at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. "There is no way you can get the flu from a flu shot," because it's not made with a live virus.

When it comes to treating the flu, a number of homeopathic or plant-based remedies are on the market, but how safe and effective they are is difficult to say.

Some people who sell these products, such as Steve Bernardi, co-owner of Johnson Drug in Waltham, Mass., swear by Boiron's Oscillococcinum to reduce the severity and duration of the flu. It's made from duck liver, but data on the product are scant. (Besides, wouldn't you rather have your foie gras with a nice glass of pinot noir?)

Bernardi also recommends several products made from mushrooms, including LifeShield Throat Defense and Host Defense, both made by New Chapter.

Again, it's impossible to evaluate the claims that these products reduce the severity or duration of colds or flu.

Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, a nonprofit organization that distributes information on herbal products, advised combining mainstream and alternative medicine: Get a flu shot to avoid getting sick, and then - if do you get sick - take the dietary supplements.

My take is more mainstream: Get a flu shot, which is 70 percent to 90 percent effective. If you do get the flu, see your doctor and take one of the four Food and Drug Adminstration-approved drugs for influenza: amantadine, rimantadine, zanamavir or oseltamivir.

The mushroom remedies sound intriguing, but for now, I'll save my mushrooms for an omelette after the foie gras.

Send your questions to foreman@baltsun.com.

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