Nobody's thinking about danger while relaxing in a warm shower. Yet potential danger, even the fatal kind, is all around you in a bathroom. According to a 2007 research report by the Home Safety Council, preventable home injuries are the fifth largest cause of death in the U.S. And safety researchers point to the bathroom, along with the kitchen and stairs, as the most dangerous zones in the house.
Here are five threats that often trip up (sometimes literally) the unwary:
1. Water, water everywhere
The most basic part of the "water closet" -- the water in the sink, tub, and shower -- is probably its number-one danger. More people are injured, even fatally, in bathroom falls than in any other room in the house. Trouble is, water doesn't always stay where it should. Poorly fitting shower curtains and simple wet feet are two of the biggest causes of water winding up on the bathroom floor.
A better way: The ideal shower has a shatterproof glass door, rather than a curtain. Failing that, you can minimize leaks by hanging a curtain liner that falls inside the tub and a second, decorative curtain that falls outside. To stop slips, try tiles in the shower with a slightly uneven surface (such as bumpy smaller tiles, rather than large, smooth squares) that feet can grip onto. A cheaper alternative: strips of adhesive nonslip decals on the shower or bathtub floor.
Keep a nonskid rug on the floor next to the shower/bath exit and in front of the sink. Basic scatter rugs are themselves a tripping hazard; look for one made to absorb moisture and stay in place on the floor. And if you're renovating, be sure to use nonslip tiles on the floor.
2. Bathroom danger: Slick tub or shower bed
Modern Americans use lots of products in the shower and bath. Trouble is, all that shampoo, conditioner, body wash, exfoliant, bath gel, shaving cream, and bubble bath collects as residue on the sides and floor, making them slippery.
A better way: Soapy buildup should be cleaned off regularly. Giving the shower or tub a quick wipe down with a washcloth after each use helps minimize slickness. A strong adult may be able to withstand the residue, but someone with balance problems, such as a frail older adult, can slip just enough to lead to a fall.
Be sure, too, to install well-anchored grab bars wherever slips are likely.
More surprising killers lurking in your bathroom
3. Bathroom danger: Bright white surfaces
A pristine white bathroom might look great, but the combination of lights, white surfaces, and reflective surfaces (such as mirrors and chrome) can be disorienting. The glare can even be blinding to someone with less-than-perfect vision, as is the case with many older adults. What's more, all that brightness can mask standing water on the floor, increasing the risk of slipping.
A better way: Switching from regular light bulbs to frosted ones can help reduce glare. A row of contrasting tile (or a wallpaper border) to break up an expanse of white wall can also help someone maintain balance. Consider painting the walls a contrasting color to fixtures if this is a problem for someone with low vision or orientation problems, such as dementia.
4. Bathroom danger: A space heater
People trying to save on heating bills or attempting to keep a bathroom warm for an older adult or a child sensitive to the cold have been known to use an electric space heater in this room. Like any electric appliance (hair dryer, razor) in the bathroom, where there's so much water, space heaters are a potential risk for electrocution.
Another space-heater danger in the bathroom is someone slipping into the device and burning themselves. Or a towel or throw rug, or even a tissue or bit of toilet paper, could catch fire.
A better way: If keeping warm is a problem, install a permanently wired heating system just in the bathroom. Or you could run the shower for a bit before the bath for an older adult or child, to produce warming steam. Fluff towels and a cotton robe in the dryer during the bath, so they're warm and ready when the person comes out of the water.
5. Bathroom danger: Shattered shower door
Glass shower doors became popular in the 1980s as an alternative to vinyl shower curtains. Most of the time, they work fine. But they've been known to shatter; in 2009, there were almost 2,000 reports to the Consumer Products Safety Commission of glass enclosure doors suddenly shattering due to improper installation. They can also break if someone falls hard into the door because of a slip.
Because most doors are made of tempered glass, they tend to instantly break into many small pieces rather than larger jagged ones. This is less likely to cause a bad cut, but it can nevertheless seriously injure a child or frail older adult who then falls onto the glass bits.
A better way: You don't have to give up on glass. Just let family members know not to use the towel racks sometimes installed along such doors for support, which can stress them. (Install well-anchored shower grab bars into the walls of the shower, instead.)
Regularly check older shower doors for cracks, chips, or the glass rubbing against metal. Some repairmen say frosted glass shatters more often than clear, although there's no safety data on this. If a glass door or even a mirror does break, the safe thing to do is throw a large towel over the shards so you can more safely exit.