Admit it: You’ve 100% scrolled through Instagram while sitting on the toilet. You might be reading this in a bathroom stall right now for all we know. But while messaging and chatting while you go might be convenient, it’s also an efficient way to spread potentially serious germs—and make you or the people in your life sick.
A study published in the Annals of Clinical Microbiology and Antimicrobials discovered that 95% of healthcare workers’ mobile phones showed evidence of bacterial contamination, some of which had the potential to cause infection, such as a staph infection. Researchers at the University of Arizona also found that our phones carry ten times as much bacteria as toilet bowls.
Talking on the phone when you’re ill allows germs from your respiratory tract to collect on your device—chief among them viral particles that cause the flu, which can live on surfaces for up to 24 hours, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Flu season is upon us, so if you get sick, use your device, and then a loved one picks it up, they’ve potentially picked up the flu as well.
Jamin Brahmbhatt, MD, a urologist at Orlando Regional Medical Center in Florida, confirms that using your smartphone in the stall is not a smart move because bathrooms themselves are pretty nasty places. “There are bacteria all over the bathroom—on the flusher, the door handles, the toilet seat,” he tells Health. “You may wash your hands once you’re done, but you don’t wash your phone.”
Bacteria and viruses don’t just get tucked in your pocket when you use your phone in the restroom; they also end up on your digits every time you send a text thereafter. The average person touches their device at least 2,600 times each day—which means lots of opportunities for infection.
Of course, even if your phone is a disease vector, the risk of contracting an illness still isn’t crazy high, since you’d need to ingest the bugs to actually get infected. In the case of E. coli, for example, a healthy person would probably just experience “some runny stool or belly aches,” says Dr. Bhrahmbhatt.
Those who are old, young, or immunosuppressed because of diabetes, chemotherapy, or another serious illness or treatment are at a greater risk for infection. “If you’re in this group, it’s even more important to have proper hygiene,” adds Dr. Brahmbhatt,
To lower the chances of your cell phone making you sick, don’t touch it while you’re on the toilet, wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom or touching other possibly germy surfaces, and commit to cleaning it regularly. “Ideally you would use an alcohol-based sanitizer, but [smartphones] are expensive instruments, so you don’t want to start spraying them with an antiseptic,” says Dr. Brahmbhatt.
Instead, wipe down your cell with a clean cloth daily, and consider using a special cleanser made for mobile phones and their screens. While a germ-laden iPhone isn’t going to kill you, Dr. Brahmbhatt says considering its bacterial load “is one good way to get people thinking about how they practice hand hygiene, in the bathroom and beyond.”