7 Tips to Keep Your Guests (and Yourself) Healthy During Holiday Gatherings

COVID, flu, and RSV are real threats right now—but there are ways to make your home a safer space.

family gathering at table for holiday meal

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  • The U.S. is experiencing a wave of flu, RSV, and COVID, just in time for holiday gatherings.
  • Though it's never possible to avoid germs completely, there are ways to make your home a safer space for get-togethers.
  • Wiping down heavily-touched surfaces, washing hands regularly, and asking people to stay home if they're sick are all ways to keep family and friends healthy.

The holidays are synonymous with get togethers, and it can be hard to know exactly how to make your home a safe space to gather—especially as respiratory viruses continue to grip the nation.

Right now, the United States is experiencing a wave of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which can be particularly dangerous for kids. COVID-19, too, is still a very real threat.

“COVID is not the main virus sending people to the hospital right now. I’m much more worried about RSV or the flu,” Suzanne Judd, PhD, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told Health.

While it’s never possible to rid your home of all unwanted germs, it is possible to take precautions to make your home both a safe place to gather—and a virus-free environment for your family once your guests depart. Here’s how.

Wash Your Hands—a Lot

It’s something we’ve been hearing since the early days of the pandemic, and for good reason. The seemingly simple habit makes a huge difference.

“Washing your hands is the best thing an individual can do to reduce their risk of getting sick because your hands can transport germs and viruses to your eyes, nose, and mouth, where they can infect the body,” said Judd.

When soap and water isn’t immediately available, hand sanitizer can suffice—especially if you’re hosting children who may not wash their hands as well as adults.

Using paper towels instead of a communal towel, or swapping out a communal hand towel every 45 minutes or so also cuts back on germs spreading from one person’s hands to the next, Judd said.

Wipe Down Surfaces—Even the Ones You Don’t Normally Clean

Be sure to regularly wipe down surfaces in heavily trafficked areas, like kitchen countertops and tables, and surfaces in the living room, dining room, and bathroom.

You don’t have to get fancy cleaners, a simple solution of soap and water or baking soda and vinegar will do a good job eliminating lingering bacteria and viruses that have landed there, said Judd.

You can also hit door handles, the bathroom sink and toilet, and items like the TV remote. 

Clean the Air

The air inside your home is an often overlooked area of a clean space—but it may be the most important, especially when it comes to respiratory viruses, Susan Arnold, PhD, associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, told Health.

“These viruses travel through the air, so when people who are infected exhale, talk, or sing, then they expel the particles on which the virus is attached and that goes out into the air,” said Arnold, adding that there are a couple strategies you can apply to cleaning the air in your home during holiday gatherings. 

The first is diluting potentially contaminated air with clean air. The easiest way to do this is to open windows. It’s even better if you can open windows that sit across a room from each other to create a cross-breeze.

According to Arnold, even cracking windows an inch or two will help keep virus particles from accumulating. Since your chances of getting infected rise with the amount of virus that enters your body, diluting air can help cut down on the amount of virus your guests are breathing in. 

The second way to clean your home’s air is by placing HEPA filters in the spaces where guests are gathering, such as the living room or TV room, kitchen, and dining room. 

“That extra filtration pulls particles out of the air including those that may have the infectious virus attached to them,” said Arnold. 

You can also protect against contaminated air at the source by urging guests to wear masks.

"If someone is infected and you are close to them, you will be exposed to more of those virus particles than if you were across the room,” Arnold said. “I know it feels hard after all this time, but people can wear a well-fitting mask when they aren’t eating or drinking.” 

Sanitize Dishes

According to Judd, dishes and eating utensils are more concerning virus-spreaders than a home’s surfaces. 

“They stay wet for a little longer, which helps bacteria and viruses stay alive,” she said. 

For this reason, Judd said it’s important to pay attention to properly washing and sanitizing dishes, either in a dishwasher or with hot, soapy water, to make sure people aren’t accidentally reusing dishes that could make them sick.

Put Out Tissues

Provide guests with tissues in every room, to make sure that they’re readily available, if needed.

“If someone is going to cough or sneeze, it’s better for them to do it in a tissue than in the crook of their arm, because they can throw it away after and wash their hands,” said Judd. 

Wash Linens When Guests Leave

If you keep up with cleaning while hosting, there shouldn’t be a need to deep clean your home once guests leave, said Judd.

You should, however, wash any used linens, including bathroom hand towels, as soon as guests head home, and replace them with clean ones for your family to use. 

Ask Sick Guests to Stay Home, Even if It Isn’t COVID

It’s common for people to think that because they tested negative for COVID, it’s OK to gather if they’re feeling sick, and it can be an awkward subject to broach.

“It may not be COVID, but it might be the flu or RSV or a cold,” said Arnold. “We really need to evolve as a society, feeling comfortable saying, ‘Maybe you should sit this one out or if you are coming, you really need to wear a mask when you are inside.’”

“The fact is, if your throat is sore, something is going on and you could very likely be a source of exposure that makes someone else really sick,” she added.

While Judd is less worried about COVID than RSV and the flu, Arnold said testing for COVID before a gathering still has value.

“It’s not going to be 100%,” said Arnold. “None of these strategies on their own is 100% effective, but if you use them in combination, they become more and more effective.”

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