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It's really not easy to catch a virus from toilet seats

Can you catch a disease or get sick from something on a toilet seat?

- Trina H., Medford

Fall and winter seem to be the time when contagious illnesses spread most easily, but your chances of picking up any kind of sickness from a toilet seat are so small as to be all but impossible any time of year, says Dr. Eric Webb, a family practice physician who has his office in Phoenix.

To understand why a toilet seat makes an extremely unlikely source of infection, it helps to understand how things like colds and flu are transmitted.

Most illnesses, and especially viruses, are spread when we cough or sneeze. Every cough or sneeze projects a wave of fluid droplets loaded with live virus particles into the air. The droplets float in the air for a time and eventually settle on surfaces such as doorknobs, tables and telephone receivers.

When someone inhales those droplets, virus particles are taken into the body. The same thing can happen when people touch an infected doorknob or pick up an infected telephone, and then rub their eyes or touch their mouth or nose. Either way, virus particles are introduced into the body, and they may multiply rapidly in their new host, creating another case of influenza or another bad cold.

The herpes virus, (the one most associated with folk tales about catching it from a toilet seat) needs a moist environment to live in, too, Webb says.

To get ill from a toilet seat, there would have to be enough moisture on the seat for a virus to remain viable, and there would have to be some kind of opening in the skin (a scratch or cut) where it met the seat to give the virus an entry point into the body.

Webb says people can reduce their chances of getting colds and flu by practicing good personal hygiene. That means washing hands frequently and avoiding touching your nose, mouth and eyes.

Hands should be washed with soap, not just flushed under running water. Some public health officials recommend washing long enough to sing the "Happy Birthday" song (Singing out loud while you wash is optional.)

Webb says people who are ill can help their coworkers stay healthy by staying home when they're sick. People who have to work through a cold should cover their coughs and sneezes to minimize the spread of virus. The best way to cover is to cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm (where it joins the shoulder) or into a handkerchief.

Covering your cough or sneeze with your hands just loads your hands with virus particles that can be spread to every surface you touch.

Staying in good health keeps our immune systems robust and helps us fight cold and flu viruses. Webb recommends getting plenty of sleep, exercising, drinking adequate fluids and avoiding excess stress.

Call Bill Kettler with your medical questions at 776-4492, or e-mail them to: bkettler@mailtribune.com or send them to: Mail Tribune, Ask Your Doctors, P.O. Box 1108, Medford OR 97501.