What To Know About 'Toilet Plume' And Using Public Restrooms During COVID

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 
In an public building are woman's toilets with black doors
Scary Mommy and DenBoma/Getty

The pandemic is not over, but states are reopening and some folks are finding responsible ways to get out of the house. Other folks, of course, are finding ways to be as irresponsible as possible. So as we venture out, particularly with our children, we need to take extra precautions to accommodate for people’s selfishness and stupidity.

A common denominator between all of us is the need to relieve our bladders and move our bowels. Politics don’t take away our need to drop a deuce while grocery shopping, and kids DGAF about social distancing when they have to pee, so plan on using a public bathroom while you are out of the house and plan on taking a few extra steps to safely eliminate your insides. Here’s what you need to know.

COVID-19 or not, public bathrooms are disgusting, but the virus adds a layer of serious illness to the ick factor. The toilet—the thing we need most—is what makes a bathroom so disgusting. Before you walk into a bathroom, consider this: Not only are people getting piss and shit ON the toilet bowl rather than IN it, but when they flush the toilet—either with their post-wipe hands or via motion sensor—they are sending a toilet plume containing aerosolized fecal matter into the air. Before entering a bathroom, know you are walking into a shitty situation.

Wear A Mask

Masks are a must. Because COVID-19 is transmitted through respiratory droplets, wearing a cloth mask over your mouth and nose reduces the spread of the virus. If you walk into a bathroom and see someone who isn’t wearing a mask, William Petri, a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia, suggests that you walk out. The air is generally poorly circulated within public bathrooms and the virus can live in the air for several hours. Also, the CDC has confirmed that COVID-19 can be found in fecal matter up to a month after an infection, which means that if at all possible, close the lid before flushing the toilet. It’s not known if COVID-19 has been passed via poop, but other germs can be, so ew. And if there isn’t a lid on the toilet you just used? Well, don’t hover over it.

Adding to the confusion of COVID-19 and best practices to stay safe, Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a pediatric infectious disease professor at Stanford University, says in a New York Times article that the public bathroom is probably not as high-risk as people imagine. I don’t know about you, but I’ll still be taking every recommended precaution.

Don’t Touch Anything Directly

The key is to not linger in public bathrooms. The longer you are in a space that could have viral material, the higher your risk of contracting it. Because the virus can also live on surfaces, another key component to safety remains the continued suggestion to touch as little as possible, including your face, then adequately wash hands after going to the bathroom. Make a plan to not touch anything directly. Use a paper towel or gloved hand to open and close doors, turn on the faucet, or flush the toilet.


While it’s easy(ish) for adults to get in and out, kids add an interesting dynamic. My kids are pretty seasoned travelers and have become pros navigating public bathrooms — and when I say navigating, I mean crawling on floors, touching all of the things, and forgetting to use soap when washing their hands. Pre-pandemic, I asked/demanded/begged my children not to touch anything when we went into public bathrooms. I now enforce this. I tell my kids to put their hands in their pockets, and I do the touching of things for them.

For infants or children who need to have a diaper change, pediatrician and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, Tanya Altmann, M.D., suggests bringing a plastic garbage bag and placing it on a changing table or floor to provide a clean barrier. After the change, roll wipes, diapers, and anything else into the bag and toss it in the trash.

Wash Your Hands

It shouldn’t take a pandemic to remind us of this, but the most important element after using a public bathroom (or any bathroom) is to wash your hands. After washing hands and leaving the bathroom, use hand sanitizer or a disinfecting wipe as another way to kill any potential viral material.

Do Your Business Outside

I took my kids on a day trip recently and we did most of our bathroom breaks in the great outdoors, which is an alternative that should be planned on; several of the rest stops we passed were closed, and the gas station we tried didn’t allow public use. One of my kids has perfected the art of needing to shit while as far away from a public bathroom as possible, so this more than anything has prepared me for COVID-19. While pooping in high traffic areas is not suggested, pooping off the main path requires clean up too. I carry plastic bags, wipes, and sanitizer with me on hikes and in the car. If you can’t pack out the poop you dropped into the woods, dig a shallow hole and place it in there. Listen: this isn’t fun for any of us, but do everyone a solid and get your shit together so that someone doesn’t step in it.

Family members carry a portable travel potty with them and I am still confused why I haven’t ordered one yet. Maybe it’s because we have perfected the “pee from the side of the van” technique that allows me to stay in the driver’s seat while my kids hold on to the handle and pee into the weeds I pulled up next to.

It’s inevitable that nature will call. Now, wherever you are, whatever germs you’re staring down, you are prepared to answer.

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