“Fomite” isn’t a word that most people hear very often. However, if you’re a microbiologist (or are under the influence of one), you are likely to find yourself considering fomites as you go about your day. Fomites are everywhere, are difficult to avoid, and while it’s a good idea to be aware of fomites, they should not be feared.
It could be a TV remote control. A pen on one of those chains at the bank. A doorknob. A subway pole. All potential fomites. Basically, any inanimate object could transmit infectious agents (e.g., bacteria, viruses) from one person to another. Things can be contaminated as a result of handling, droplets from a cough/sneeze, or contact with other bodily fluids. I educated the audience (and embarrassed my friend…) hissing “Fomites!” (loudly, apparently) during the movie Contagion.
Despite the fact that we’re surrounded by fomites, fear isn’t warranted. If you are in good health, and practise common-sense hygiene (e.g., washing your hands … more than once a day …) then you probably have little to worry about. People often worry about items that are much less dangerous than one might think.
The item that may be most feared: the toilet seat. Not surprising as bathrooms are hardly havens of hygiene. What many people worry about is the possibility of acquiring a sexually transmitted pathogen – “venereal disease” (VD), “sexually transmitted disease” (STD), or “sexually transmitted infection” (STI). STI has come into greater use, reflecting that many of these pathogens may be asymptomatic, or cause mild symptoms that may not be recognized as “disease” in infected individuals. While there is certainly cause for concern about rates of STIs (particularly the increasing incidence of multi-drug-resistant gonorrhoea; also, gonorrhoea, chlamydia, and syphilis can lead to serious complications, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, resulting in chronic pain and/or infertility) toilet seats are not going to put you at risk of these infections.
Why not? Well, microbes have diverse lifestyles. The bacteria that cause chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhoea are transmitted primarily by sex—close contact between skin/mucous membranes. Able to attach to the epithelial cells of the urethra, cervix and other regions of the urogenital tract, these bacteria invade, sometimes spreading to other parts of the body in later stages of infection. Outside of the host, though, these cells are surprisingly fragile, susceptible to stresses of the external environment—ill-equipped to lurk and linger infectiously on the surface of the toilet seat (very different from hardier bacteria that aren’t spread sexually, like E. coli, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and many others).
Perhaps the most feared sexually transmitted pathogen is HIV, but this virus too is unlikely to remain viable for long outside of the body and blood. HIV is usually transmitted through a cut/break in skin or mucous membranes, and the chances of getting this virus from a toilet seat are incredibly miniscule. Ditto for those pesky genital herpes viruses.
So, while squatting over the toilet might be a good workout for your quadriceps, it’s probably unnecessary if you’re just trying to prevent your butt from touching a toilet seat. How to protect yourself? Get tested, use condoms, and take responsibility for your sexual relationships. Oh, and if a partner tries to tell you that he/she acquired an STI from a toilet seat, Science Cat can assure you that you would be justified in being highly skeptical of such a claim.
Tanya Noel teaches introductory and medical microbiology at the University of Windsor in Windsor, ON, Canada. She’s interested in improving science education at the post-secondary level, and is the proud owner of three cats who feature regularly in her #Caturday tweets. Follow @TCNoel on Twitter.
Photo via Cheezburger.com
More info about STIs:
Sexually Transmitted Diseases – Information from CDC http://www.cdc.gov/std/