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Your child needs to pee? How to deal with public toilets during COVID-19

When they’ve gotta go, they’ve gotta go. Here’s how parents can minimise the risk.

Your child needs to pee? How to deal with public toilets during COVID-19

(Art: The New York Times/Branche Coverdale)

Public bathrooms have always brought up an ick factor – especially in parents with young kids who touch everything and put things in their mouths.

But in pandemic times, there are even more worries: A study came out last month confirming that infectious coronavirus is present in faeces – something that was suspected but not known before.

It’s still not clear how much infectious material is in the faeces of a person with COVID-19, and how long aerosolised bits can hang around in the air after someone flushes, said Dr Yvonne Maldonado, a professor of paediatric infectious disease at Stanford University.

READ: Flushing the toilet may fling coronavirus aerosols all over. What should you do?

Since many public restrooms are small, poorly ventilated spaces with a high volume of traffic, they feel like a place where people could potentially be exposed to viral material.

But Dr Moldanado said that the overall risk of a public bathroom is probably not as high as people imagine it to be. It’s not about the contact in an area, it’s more about the amount of time a person has had contact there.

“Most people aren’t sitting in public bathrooms for hours and hours,” she said. “And frankly, if you look at the data on transmission, some of the most important transmission occurs in the home, because there are lots of high-repetitive touch areas over time.” In a public bathroom, an infected person is just touching surfaces once, rather than over and over.

She adds that while scientists don’t yet know the risk of using a bathroom that an infected person has been in for a few minutes, there are still common-sense actions that parents can take. 

“The best way to deal with surfaces is with disinfectant wipes and hand washing: Wipe down door handles and toilet seats,” she said, adding that the coronavirus is pretty easy to inactivate with disinfectant.

READ: No toilet paper? Health experts say washing may be better than wiping

People, including kids, should also wear masks inside any building and keep distance from others as much as possible in a bathroom; respiratory droplets still are a much bigger source of transmission than surfaces.

Dr Tanya Altmann, a paediatrician, spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and mother of three based in Calabasas, California, said she had a motto for her small children in questionable public restrooms: “Don’t touch anything, Mummy will do it all for you.” 

She advises that parents do all the touching of surfaces in a public restroom, with a barrier on their hand (either a wipe, gloves or paper towel).

That means parents open the door, lay out a toilet seat cover, lift a child onto the toilet, help him wipe, flush and open the door. While your child’s bottom isn’t a way for the virus to enter the body, any barrier to commonly touched surfaces is recommended, Dr Altmann said. Not just for coronavirus, but for general hygiene also.

When done, parents and children should wash their hands thoroughly and avoid the hand-drying machines, which can blast dead skin cells and other materials into the air. 

Opening the door with a paper towel couldn’t hurt either. As kids get older, Dr Altmann said, they can learn to safely avoid touching surfaces in the restroom on their own.

For changing infants and babies in diapers, Dr Altmann advises parents to bring a plastic garbage bag to spread out over a changing table, creating a clean mat. Having necessary supplies on hand – sanitising wipes and gloves – means you don’t have to go hunting around and touching surfaces while changing a diaper. 

And when the change is done, the garbage bag can be rolled up with the diaper, wipes and gloves, and thrown away. Another option is to do diaper changes in the back of your car.

But don’t just tell kids to hold it. Holding a bladder or bowel movement until you reach a safe place may not be healthy, said Dr Richard Jackson, a paediatrician and professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, Fielding School of Public Health.

“Mother Nature intended us to get rid of waste, and it doesn’t take much time to get backed up,” he said, adding that holding waste can lead to problems like voiding dysfunction. Of course, sometimes kids have to hold it for a while, but “don’t hold it until it hurts”, he said.

Outdoor pees have always been popular for little kids, especially boys. But public health experts said to be wary of outdoor defecation, especially in areas like parks where there may be other people walking in the same areas.

“Make sure that you’re following the rules of that park. If the rules are to use the bathrooms, be considerate and follow the guidelines,” said Dr Altmann. “Do whatever you would want other people to do.”

READ: Why you can't control your pee when you're still young – and how to fix it

“It would not be a good idea to disperse faeces around a place where there are a lot of people running around,” said Dr Jackson.

“You don’t know if a three-year-old is going to be running in the area a few minutes later. If you’re going to have to use the facilities, use gloves and masks.”

Still, Dr Altmann said, the benefits of getting out into sunshine and fresh air outweigh the risks of public bathrooms.

Being outside is important for mental health as well as physical well-being. “It’s more important than ever to get out into nature,” he said.

By Katharine Gammon © The New York Times

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Source: New York Times