“It’s a difficult topic to discuss,” says Dr. Raymond Chinn, medical director of infection prevention at Sharp Memorial Hospital. But he confirms this myth is, in fact, a fact: there is a chance of getting sick after drinking from a water fountain.
Drinking from regularly maintained and used water fountains is your best bet, Dr. Chinn continues. Well-trafficked places such as hospitals, medical centers and schools have strict guidelines for maintenance and cleaning, so using these public water fountains may decrease the risk.
However, users with colds may cough and sneeze when using the water fountain. This creates an opportunity for a stranger to leave behind a virus — some of which can survive for up to an hour on the handle, spigot and bowl. Handles can be contaminated with viruses, so it's important to clean your hands after using a water fountain and before touching your face; this helps to prevent the transmission of cold viruses.
The risks may increase when you venture to the park, beach or other public places where maintenance schedules might not always be as regular.
Tips for using a water fountain
Public water treatment does not eliminate all bacteria; just enough to meet federal regulations for safe human consumption. For all water fountains, Dr. Chinn suggests running the water for 15 seconds before drinking.
He also recommends:
- Keeping your mouth off the spigot
- Not touching your face after touching the handle of a water fountain until you have cleaned your hands to remove bacteria and viruses
- Not drinking the water if there is cloudiness and/or a bad smell
- Avoiding water fountains completely if you are immune-compromised, including if you are undergoing chemotherapy or recently had an organ transplant
“If you have a water fountain system that hasn’t been used for a while, over time, a biofilm forms and traps bacteria,” Dr. Chinn explains. “When you push the button to dispense the water, the bacteria mix with your drinking water and if swallowed, can cause upset stomach and diarrhea.”
If you are concerned about safety, it may be best to avoid drinking from suspect public water fountains and instead, bring water from home or drink bottled water.