Can You Get Diseases From Bad Bathroom Smells?

After a stench grounded a plane this week, we investigate

Smelling it might be uncomfortable, but it won't get you sick.

Credit: Dirtyboxface via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Earlier this week, a British Airlines flight from London to Dubai had to turn around after just 30 minutes in the air. It wasn’t because of a terrorist threat or weather or mechanical trouble. It was because someone on the plane left a really stinky poop in the airplane bathroom. And while that’s probably very unpleasant, it doesn’t actually pose much risk for transmitting disease.

There are a lot of different reasons why stool might smell particularly foul, and it doesn't always mean the pooper is sick. Medication or too much of a particular vitamin can sometimes alter the functions of the gastrointestinal tract. Certain kinds of sickness, like food allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, pancreatitis, or cystic fibrosis can change how poop smells, but these diseases aren't communicable. One passenger described the feces as "liquid" in consistency, but again that could have a number of causes, and not all because of disease.

A bad smell filling the air means that odor molecules are coming out of the bathroom and into your nasal passages. But odor particles aren't the same as pathogens flying through the air; bacteria and viruses require a surprising amount of force to be picked up and transmitted through the air. That's why diseases like Ebola are not airborne--the virus is just too big to float around in the air.

"It's obviously offensive and difficult for the folks on the airplane, but I'm not aware that a particularly bad odor indicates a greater risk for infection or bacterial transmission," says Jean-Pierre Raufman, a gastroenterologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Simulations have shown how sneeze particles travel in an airplane, and they can get pretty far. But for bacteria from feces, the risk isn't the same. "Usually the risk comes from ingesting the bacteria, not inhaling them," Raufman said.

Raufman is sympathetic that people were uncomfortable and concerned about the possibility of disease from such a stench, but if that should happen on your next flight, you might just have to grin and bear it.

“It’s unpleasant, it’s uncomfortable, but the risk of illness is relatively negligible,” Raufman says.