Which Alarming Health Concerns You Can (and Can’t) Ignore

Scary medical headlines grab all the attention, but these everyday habits may be more likely to harm you.

By Teresa Dumain
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine December 2013

HEALTH FEAR: Catching a disease from the toilet seat
• WORRY MORE ABOUT: Catching a disease from your hands

Some people squat, others perch, some may hover, a few contort—anything not to let their rear end touch a public toilet. Their biggest fear? Contracting a sexually transmitted disease. But experts say there’s never been a documented case of gonorrhea, chlamydia, HIV, or other STD that was spread by a toilet seat. That’s not to say that toilets aren’t teeming with icky bugs. When researchers from the University of Colorado tested 12 public bathrooms, they found gut microbes on seats and toilet handles, as well as skin-associated staph bacteria on faucets, fecal-borne bacteria on the handles of bathroom exits, and a whole mess of organisms on floors.

Now, that may gross you out (and news stories titled “The Germiest Public Places!” perpetuate the hysteria), but the reality is you’re more likely to pick up those bugs on your hands than on your behind. When an unwashed hand touches your eyes, nose, or mouth, germs gain entry and make you sick. So scrub those hands, and do it right. Researchers who discreetly observed about 3,700 people after they used public toilets in a Michigan college town found that only 5 percent washed their hands long enough to kill germs, about 10 percent didn’t wash their hands at all, and almost 23 percent didn’t use soap. The correct way: Lather up with soap, and rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds (the amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice), making sure to clean the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.

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