Everyone’s worst nightmare—your toilet becomes backed up, the contents overflow onto what seems like every surface, and you’re so panicked you don’t even know where to start to try to fix the problem! If it’s any comfort, this is a relatively common problem that most people go through at least once in their lifetime. It’s usually an easy fix, and once you have cleaned and sanitized all the items that were saturated by toilet water, your bathroom will be back to normal; as if the incident never happened.

If your toilet begins to overflow, the first step should be to lift up the cover on the back of the toilet and push the flapper down. Many people think that shutting off the water should be your initial reaction, but that will only stop water from flowing into the tank, and any water still in the tank will continue to flow into the bowl and increase the overflow. Pushing the flapper down will immediately stop water from flowing from the tank into the bowl. Once you’ve done this, then you can shut off the water to the toilet. Look on the wall to the left of the toilet, and turn the water valve clockwise. It’s common to want to start cleaning up the mess as soon as it happens, but these first steps are very important to limit the amount of damage done by the overflowing toilet.

Now that your water is shut off and there is no danger of the toilet overflowing more than it has, you can survey the damage. It’s a good idea to pick up any rugs or towels that might have been victims to the onslaught of toilet water, and while you do this the hope is that the water in the bowl will start to go down. If it doesn’t, you will want to try to bail some out so that when you begin attempting to unclog the toilet, no more will splash out and ruin what you’ve cleaned up. It’s also important to try to identify what the cause of the clogged toilet could be. If you suspect that it’s just a wad of toilet paper, you will need to try to plunge the toilet until the clog is removed. Some people say that using a solution of hot water and dish detergent will automatically break down the toilet paper, but the reality is that this almost never works—not to mention the fact that hot water can damage the

porcelain. Instead, use a plunger that is meant for toilets, not sinks. A toilet plunger has a cone on the bottom of it, instead of just a flat edge. Remember to start plunging slowly and work up the intensity so that you don’t risk creating a bigger mess. You can also use a toilet auger or snake, but make sure it’s one specifically meant for the toilet. Once you have successfully unclogged the toilet, the water in the bowl will go down and you can turn the water back on.

If you know that a foreign object fell into the toilet and is causing the clog, plunging it is a bad idea. Instead, get a pair of rubber gloves and try to reach into the toilet and get it out. Don’t force your hand too far in—if you can’t reach the item but the space around your hand is getting tight, it’s time to give up and move on to a new course of action: call the plumber. The clog might be farther into the pipes than you can reach, and a plumber will easily diagnose the problem and solve it.

Cleaning up after a toilet overflow will be unpleasant, but it’s important that you do it as soon as possible to keep the spread of bacteria to a minimum and therefore make the cleaning job easier. Use old towels to mop up the mess, and throw them and any other fabrics that have been saturated into the washing machine on a hot cycle with a few tablespoons of bleach added to the water. Cleaning up the tile around the toilet is relatively easy—you can mop it using hot water and soap, or spray disinfectant on the surfaces and wipe it up after letting it sit for about 10 minutes.

Remember, if your toilet starts to overflow, try not to panic! Keep a clear head and remember that it’s almost always an easy fix. Even if you do end up requiring the services of a plumber, the damage in most cases should be minimal and your toilet and bathroom will be back to normal in no time.