Yes, you can catch STDs from contaminated hotel bedlinen and towels

Hotel kettles have been given a bad name, but now it seems towels and bedlinen are not 'safe' either. 

If you're one of those who've always thought that Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) can only be passed through skin-to-skin contact, sexual intercourse or blood transfusions, be prepared have your belief turned on its head.

What piqued our interest in the topic was a recent China Daily report on unclean bedlinen and towels at Beijing's five-star hotels, where an infectious diseases expert said some sexually transmitted diseases may be passed on through contaminated towels. He added that bacteria on bedsheets can also lead to gastrointestinal trouble like diarrhoea.

Suitably alarmed, we dived deeper to uncover the truth. A search on the web throws up many accounts that seem to support the argument.

We asked experts in Singapore whether contact with dirty sheets and towels can really give us stomach flu and infect us with STDs.

In brief, the answer is yes to both.

Dr Leong Hoe Nam, Infectious Diseases Physician at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital explains that some STDs can be spread by contaminated bedlinen and towels. The more moist the surface or the holding environment, the better the survival of the infectious matter.

According to Dr Leong, STDs like gonorrhea have been found to survive in towels for up to 24 hours, and chlamydia were detected on plastic surfaces for up to 45 minutes. The virus that causes genital herpes is also transmissible via non-sexual contact, surviving for up to two hours outside the body.

Feeling queasy yet?

In case you didn't know, there are several types of STDs, according to WebMD.

Bacterial STDs include chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. Viral STDs include HIV, genital herpes, genital warts (HPV), and hepatitis B.

Some STDs, for example the parasite trichomonas vaginalis, or trich, can survive almost an hour outside the body. It causes vaginal infections in women and urethral infections in men, but is easily curable.

Pubic lice, also known as crabs, can also be spread from infected bedding and towel, states.

What about stomach flu or food poisoning? 

"Bacteria can survive on bed linen, tables, etc, for days," says Dr Leong. But you will need to ingest the bacteria to get sick. Respiratory viruses, however, are worse.

 "They can survive on inanimate objects for 24 hours. And when you flip or beat the blanket or bed linen around, you aerosolise it, making transmission more effective. Breathe it, and you have it!" 

Well, isn't that just great.

Richard Khaw, Assistant Director (Food & Pharmaceutical Sciences) at Singapore Nanyang Polytechnic's School of Chemical & Life Sciences, however, offers some cold comfort: "Unless the bedlinen or towels have been soiled with faeces or other bodily fluids such as vomit - and such stains are usually visible to the naked eye - there is very low risk of gastroenteritis being transmitted."

He also believes the rate of transmission of herpes and gonorrhea through external contact surfaces are low.

Likewise for parasitic STDs, as the parasites don't survive well in a harsh environment without proper nutrients and growth conditions - a view echoed by Dr Leong.

Whatever the case is, it is wise to take precautions and have good bedroom and bathroom hygiene practises, advises Khaw, as there's also the risk of getting staph infections from skin-related bacteria transmissions, especially when you have an open wound.

"An example is Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) that may be able to transmit indirectly through contact surfaces such as shared utensils, towels, bedlinen and other personal care items," said Khaw. MRSA is resistant to most common anti-biotics, making it more deadly.


Dr Leong offers a few tips to avoid the possibility of contracting an STD while on your vacation. 

1. Avoid sharing of towels. It is a health issue. Besides sharing unintended STDs, you can inevitably share other bacteria, including MRSA.

2. Keep our areas clean. If we mess it, we clean it.  

3. The drier the environment, the lower the risk. Keeping contact surfaces dry minimises risk of contamination.

But for STDs like HIV, syphilis and hepatitis B and C, Dr Leong assures that these can not be transmitted via bedlinen and damp towels.

However, he adds: "The next time you sit on a public toilet seat, think of this article."

Right. I guess the next time you feel like diving in butt-naked under the covers in your hotel room, you'd better think twice.