Nobody who gets sick wants to inflict achy, sniffly misery on the people they live or work with. But there are some ways that you could be spreading germs to others — or, at least, putting them at a higher risk for illness — without realizing it.
Here are a handful of habits or actions that can promote the transmission of illness-causing bugs.
You don’t have to cough directly into someone’s face to give them the flu.
If you’re infected, you can spread the flu to people up to six feet away by coughing, sneezing, or just talking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Experts think that flu viruses spread by droplets that are made when people with the flu cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land someone else’s mouth or nose or possibly be inhaled, the CDC website adds.
2. Not washing your hands the right way
You likely already know that frequent hand washing can keep you from passing your germs to other people.
But it seems many of us are blowing off proper hand-washing technique. A study published US Department of Agriculture in June found that people fail to wash their hands correctly 97% of the time.
The CDC says good handwashing— the type that effectively removes germs from your hands — should follow these steps:
- Wet hands with clean, running water (warm or cold) and apply soap
- Lather up, making sure you get the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails
- Scrub for at least 20 seconds. (You can sing the “Happy Birthday” song as a self-timer)
- Rinse with clean, running water
- Dry using a clean towel (or just air)
If you don’t have access to soap and clean running water, you can use a hand sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol, according to the CDC, but hand washing is still best when you can do it.
If you need extra motivation to scrub for the full 20 seconds, just remember that hand-washing protects you from other people’s germs, too. For instance: Public bathroom surfaces contaminated with other peoples’ faeces or vomit could be crawling with pathogens like E. coli, hepatitis A and E, Streptococcus, and norovirus, as Business Insider reported earlier this year.
3. Not staying home when you’re sick
It’s no shock that going into work or school when you’re sick can get others sick, too. But you might be surprised by the speed with which that may happen — at least according to one study that examined viral spread in a office building.
In the study —which was presented at a 2104 conference of the American Society for Microbiology— researchers placed viruses on one or two surfaces in an office, like a doorknob or tabletop. After just four hours, more than half of the workers’ hands tested positive for the virus.
If you have the flu, the CDC recommends staying home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (without using fever-reducing medicines). If you get a cold, some experts note that you may be able to spread it to othersshortly before symptoms show up, but it’s most contagious in the first two to three days that you actually feel sick, according to the US National Library of Medicine.
4. Not getting your flu shot
If you’re a young, healthy person who typically doesn’t get sick over the winter, you may think it’s not important to get vaccinated against the flu. But a flu shot doesn’t just protect you— it also protects the more vulnerable people around you, like babies, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems. (Don’t forget that the flu can be fatal. An estimated 80,000 Americans died from it last year.)
First, getting the shot means you’re less likely to get the flu and pass it to others.
Second, getting the shot contributes to what’s known as herd immunity. When more people in a population are vaccinated against a disease, that disease can’t spread as easily and the entire population becomes less likely to get it. This helps protect those who can’t get certain vaccinations. (The CDC says that babies younger than six months and people who are allergic to flu shot ingredients, for example, shouldn’t get them.)
“You don’t get immunized just to protect yourself. You also get immunized to protect those who can’t protect themselves,” pediatrician Dr. Aaron Carroll wrote in The New York Times in January.
5. Blowing out birthday candles
The opportunity to blow out candles on a birthday cake comes around just once a year, but if you’re sick at your next birthday party, you might want to step away from the cake.
A study published in the Journal of Food Research found that blowing out birthday candles increased the number of bacteria on test cakes by an average of 1,400%, compared to ones that didn’t have their candles blown out, Business Insider reported in 2017. The cakes that had been blown on had a greater range of bacteria on them, too.
Of course, it’s important to remember that not every microbe you encounter is harmful. But if the birthday person is sick, it may make sense to rethink the candle tradition.
“I personally will be aware of the health status of the blower and won’t blow out candles if I’m sick,” Paul Dawson, the leading author of the study and a professor of food science at Clemson University, told Business Insider.