Help! My Toilet is Overflowing! What Do I Do?

By: Diana Rodriguez-Zaba
Updated on: March 25, 2024

You jiggle the handle, but it doesn’t help. The toilet won’t flush. Water rises up, fills the bowl and spills out onto the bathroom floor.

You’re dealing with an overflowing toilet.

How do you handle this mess before it floods the bathroom? 

With over 85 years of combined experience, we’ve helped residents in Chicago with water damage from these types of issues, so we know what to do in this situation.

Before You Get Started

Before you get to work repairing an overflowing toilet, follow these steps to prepare the area and keep yourself safe:

  1. Turn off the water. First things first – stop the flow of water from the overflowing toilet. Do this by turning off the supply valve at the back of the toilet or, if that doesn’t work, shutting off the water main for the entire home.
  2. Protect yourself. Toilet overflow is usually categorized as Category 2 or Category 3 – gray or black water, depending on its level of contamination. Stay safe by assuming that water spilling out of an overflowing toilet is dangerous. It may not contain raw sewage, but it is contaminated with microorganisms. Exposure to parasites and bacteria in toilet water can cause serious illness. Before you start working on a clogged toilet, minimize the risks with basic protective gear. Always wear rubber gloves and goggles. When you’ve finished the job, disinfect your tools and wash your work clothes. Safely dispose of old towels and rags used during cleanup, and keep kids, pets, and other family members out of the affected area until it’s been cleaned and sanitized. 
  3. Consider calling a professional. While an overflowing toilet is a big mess, it can be much more than that. Toilet overflows can cause mold, mildew, extensive structural damage, and costly repairs. Before you start cleaning up the damage, make sure you’re actually equipped to deal with all of this on your own. If not (or if you’re not sure you want to take on such a big job), consider calling a restoration professional like ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba for water damage repair services: 773-647-1985

How to Fix an Overflowing Toilet

toilet overflow

1. Problem: A Stubborn Clog

Signs: The water is draining slowly after flushing, or you’re noticing rising water levels in the toilet bowl.

Solution: Start by using a toilet plunger to try and remove the clog. Its center flange creates a tight seal around the toilet drain opening.

Coat the plunger edges with petroleum jelly, position it over the drain, and start slowly. As you work, increase downward pressure and speed until the clog breaks up.

Water should begin flowing down the drain after several tries. Repeat plunging as needed until the toilet seems to be draining again. 

Give it a flush to make sure, but use caution: 

When you’re dealing with a toilet clog, flushing it again and again can make things worse by increasing the amount of water flooding out of the clogged toilet and onto your bathroom floor. Resisting that extra flush can head off additional toilet overflow damage to walls, floors, and cabinets.

If a plunger doesn’t clear the problem, use a toilet drain snake. This tool is designed to snag clogs and pull them out of the bowl. Ease its hook into the toilet’s S-shaped trap by turning the auger’s crank clockwise.

As the snake pushes through the drain, apply a little pressure. Keep it up until you can feel the obstruction. Try to work the snake through the clog. This should allow the water to start draining. Give the hook half a turn in several directions, and then carefully reel it back in.

Dump the clog in your mop bucket, and snake the drain several more times. Finally, turn the water back on, and flush twice to clear the drain and line. If you don’t have any luck with the auger, it’s time to call a plumber.

Power Tip: Avoid using a plunger in a toilet while the water is still overflowing, as that makes the situation worse.

2. Problem: A Clogged Toilet Trap

Signs: Slow draining, a full or overflowing bowl, a gurgling sound when you flush, or lingering foul smells. 

Solution: The S-shaped trap in a toilet base prevents sewer gasses from backing up into the bathroom. Its shape also makes it a prime spot for catching things that shouldn’t go down the toilet, such as cotton balls, dental floss, facial tissues, and even too much toilet paper.

If you have a clogged toilet trap, the first step is to stop water from spilling out of the toilet bowl as quickly as possible. 

To do this, locate the shut-off valve on the water supply line behind your toilet. Turn it counterclockwise until it’s completely closed. You may still need to remove the tank lid and pull up the float. If the water continues to run, turn off the main supply line coming into your home.

Once you’ve turned off the water, use a plunger to remove any paper-related clog. If the plunger doesn’t work, use a toilet auger (also known as a closet auger). This is a long tube in the shape of J. It has a cable that you can turn with a handle. It works similarly to a drain snake, except that the tube allows you to run the cable into the toilet trap while also protecting the toilet bowl from damage. 

To use the auger, place the auger tube into the hole of the toilet bowl, push the handle down, and crank the cable in a clockwise motion. Keep going until the cable won’t extend any further. Pull the cable back out and repeat the process until the clog clears. 

3. Problem: General Fixture Failures

toilet shut off valve

Signs: A leaking toilet bowl or a toilet that sounds like it’s constantly “running.” 

Solution: A flooding toilet might be the result of a broken handle. A toilet overflowing from the tank is usually caused by a faulty float or fill valve. Broken fixtures can generate a constant water flow that eventually spills out of the bowl or the tank.

Fortunately, the solution to this problem is pretty simple: all you need to do is identify the faulty fixture and replace it. 

Toilet fixtures are available at most home improvement stores and most of them are easy to install in an afternoon. 

4. Problem: Clogged Sewer Laterals

Signs: A toilet that’s slow to flush or drain, strange smells or noises, sewage backing up into your basement or crawl space.

Solution: If the toilet overflows for no reason and the bathroom smells bad, it might be a clogged lateral between a city main and the house. A lateral line clog can push water into the basement and up through drains in tubs and sinks.

If you fear you have a clogged sewer lateral, you’ll need to call a professional plumber for assistance. If you’re in the Chicago area, the city also offers repair options for homeowners with lateral problems.

5. Problem: Old Pipes and Connections

Signs: Discolored water, water stains around the base of the toilet, corroded pipes leading to or from the toilet. 

Solution: Eventually, metal pipes in older homes age out and corrode. This results in rust accumulation that weakens plumbing connections.

A breakdown in old drainage pipes or the sewer line can cause a backup and result in a toilet overflow that floods the bathroom.

If old pipes and connections are behind your flood, you’ll need to hire a plumber to replace the pipes and fix the leak. 

6. Problem: High Filler Float

Signs: The toilet is always running, the water level in the tank is too high, and the inside of the tank may have calcium buildup or water stains near the top. 

Solution: The filler float is a floating fixture that tells your toilet tank how high to refill itself. As the water refills, it stops when it hits the filler float. If the filler float is set too high, however, the tank will refill with too much water, which will cause it to leak out the sides. 

Fortunately, you can fix this problem by adjusting the filler float mechanism inside the tank to lower the float level. 

If the toilet has already overflowed and you’re dealing with excessive water on the floor, use a wet vac to mitigate water damage from the toilet overflow.

Next, put old towels around the toilet base and across the wet floors. This catches overflow that results from unclogging the toilet. It also reduces the chances of slipping and falling while you work.

Keep in mind that toilet water is contaminated with dangerous bacteria, so follow the best safe practices as you clean up the bathroom.

7. Problem: Blocked Vent Pipe

Signs: Your toilet clogs more frequently.

Solution: A vent pipe helps the toilet function by moving external air into the toilet’s plumbing system, thereby replacing the air the toilet pumps out with each flush. If this pipe gets blocked, the toilet won’t be able to flush properly and will overflow as a result. 

Unfortunately, a blocked vent pipe usually isn’t something you can fix on your own. If you suspect this may be your problem, contact an experienced plumber for assistance. 

8. Problem: Backflowing Septic Tank

Signs: Your toilet makes a gurgling sound, there is sewage backing up into your toilet, or you’ve noticed bad odors coming up from the toilet drain.

Solution: Septic tanks are complex and can be dangerous to repair, and any backup of raw sewage presents various health and safety hazards.

Because of this, we always recommend contacting a professional plumber to help you address the issue and proceed with repairs. Depending on the level of your septic tanks, you may need to have them pumped to stop the backup. 

What to Do About Water Damage

drying equipment for bathroom water damage

If you’ve got water damage in the bathroom due to a toilet overflow, you need to dry it out as quickly as possible. 

Regular fans can help speed up the job, but you want to reduce moisture levels in drywall and floors rapidly. 

These tips can help dry out water-damaged materials and reduce the risk of secondary water damage and mold problems.

  • Run several heavy fans and a dehumidifier inside the bathroom for at least two or three days.
  • If it isn’t humid or cold outside, leave a bathroom window open to increase air circulation.
  • Open cabinet doors, pull back the shower curtain, and move floor mats to another room.
  • Monitor the progress of your drying efforts by checking bathroom walls with a moisture meter.

Power Tip: If you aren’t making progress drying out the bathroom, call in restoration pros, like ServiceMaster by Zaba, who specializes in structural drying.

How to Prevent Toilet Clogs

A clogged toilet isn’t always preventable, but there are simple bathroom routines that can make a difference.

Reduce the chances of a toilet overflow in your home with these easy tips.

  • Assume that products claiming to be flushable should always go in the trash instead.
  • Keep a small trash can next to the toilet, encourage its use, and empty it often.
  • If children share the bathroom, post a kid-friendly list of things that should never go in the toilet.
  • Consider using a toilet seat lock to child-proof the fixture and keep little ones safer in the bathroom.
  • Never use the toilet to dispose of non-flushable items like cooking grease, fruit and vegetable peels, meat trimmings, pads, tampons, cotton balls, paper, dental floss, or diapers. 
  • Ensure that you’re fully flushing the toilet every time you go – weak or partial flushing can cause clogs to form over time.
  • When one bathroom visit involves excess toilet paper, avoid buildup by flushing several times.
  • Keep countertops and shelves near the toilet clear of small objects that might accidentally fall into the bowl.

Dealing with an Overflowing Toilet in Chicago, IL or Suburbs? We’re Here to Help!

toilet overflow restoration

When bathroom water damage turns into more than mopping up, you need help right away. The mess left behind from a toilet overflow can leave long-term damage in walls, baseboards, and flooring.

We’re proud of our standing as Chicago’s leading water damage restoration experts, and we’re here for you with a 24/7 response. Our staff can also assist with filing your homeowners insurance claim.

When you need professional restoration in Chicago, call us right away: 773-647-1985