10 Germ Myths Under the Microscope

As you take steps to avoid the germs and viruses that proliferate as winter progresses, you've no doubt received a good share of advice on how to avoid catching whatever's going around.

ABCNews OnCall+ spoke with experts about some of the popular myths about germs that tend to spread as fast as the bacteria themselves this time of year.

Is a dog's mouth cleaner than a person's? How unsafe are public toilet seats? Some of these questions lack hard data, and the study findings sometimes conflict.

So before taking advice from your friends, you might want to check their wisdom about our microbe neighbors.

Fact or Myth? You can get infections or illnesses from sitting directly on a public toilet seat.

Answer: Myth

"Just sort of sitting on the seat and having that contact with the skin on your butt isn't going to be a way of transmitting an infection," said Elizabeth Scott, co-director and founder of the Simmons Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community Settings at Simmons College in Boston.

"I think that one's associated with the fact that we all find public toilets very disgusting," she said, adding that you were more likely to get sick from touching the toilet seat or the flush handle with your hand.

Dr. J. Owen Hendley, professor of pediatric infectious disease at the University of Virginia Children's Hospital, said that this myth has been a persistent one.

Of getting an infection, he said, "I guess you could, but I've never known of a documented case where that actually happened."

But that has not stopped the myth. Hendley noted that the concern might have originated with a fear that syphilis could spread through toilet seats. He said that that fear is likely behind the design of many public toilet seats in which the seat itself is open in the front, preventing contact between the person and the seat in that area.

But the knowledge that sitting directly on the seat doesn't spread the germs doesn't seem likely to make it more appealing.

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"I couldn't imagine it [spreading infection]," said Hendley. "Which is not to say I would like to go into a public restroom and sit down on the toilet seat."

Fact or Myth? If you keep your toothbrush within 6 feet of your toilet, you're brushing your teeth with toilet water.

Answer: Possibly a Fact

"You get a great spray out of the toilet when you flush it," said Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona. "This throws bacteria out of the toilet."

Gerba's research showed a spray coming out of toilets when they are flushed. That spray goes out and puts fecal bacteria and whatever else is in the toilet all over everything else in the bathroom, right?

Maybe not. A few years ago, the Discovery Channel's "Mythbusters" tackled the issue.

In its tests, the show placed toothbrushes near the toilet, in a bathroom cabinet and in the kitchen of a house.

At the end of the test, the show declared the toilet-toothbrush-shower a myth, with all three toothbrushes having similar amounts of fecal bacteria, regardless of placement.

So we know there's a spray when the toilet gets flushed, but it's unclear how far it travels and what ends up where.

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