A Guide to Home-Proofing for Flu, Coronavirus and Other Illnesses

Including How to Disinfect Frequently Touched Objects and Deep-Cleans
Rob Gabriele

This guide explains why your home is an important front in the battle against germs and viruses. It covers best practices for cleaning everyday objects, keeping the home safe, and what to do before, after, and during visits from family and guests.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines a grim picture: As of December 8, 2020, COVID-19 has killed more than 285,000 Americans and infected more than 15 million. Preliminary estimates for the 2019-2020 flu season in the United States indicate about 38 million symptomatic cases and 22,000 deaths. Each year, about 900 people in the United States die from noroviruses. They also send nearly 470,000 children to the emergency room. Even the common cold can lead to serious, fatal illnesses in folks with immune system problems.

No matter how organized and health-conscious you are, it can be tricky to virus-proof your home. Here’s why:

View from the Experts: Protecting Your Home Against Flu, Coronavirus and Other Illnesses

“If you're sick, it does make sense to steer clear of household members as much as you can, though a strict quarantine is likely not necessary. It should also be emphasized that [just] as important as household quarantine is making sure that you stay home from work or school when you are ill to prevent spread to others.”

– Dr. Stacey Rose, Assistant Professor of Medicine (Infectious Diseases) at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston

“You’ve got a lot more mucus production, coughing, et cetera. It sets you up for possibly a bacterial infection [such as bacterial pneumonia] on top of [flu symptoms].”

– Dr. Peter Shearer, Director of the Emergency Department at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City

“Soap and water works really well. It can dry your hands out a little bit more but when you do it, you want to do it right. That means getting your hands wet with warm water, cleaning them, getting all of the surfaces with soap for 20 seconds — that’s a full time through ‘Happy Birthday’ — and then also rinsing them off afterwards.”

– Emily Landon, Medical Director for Infection Control at the University of Chicago Medical Center

“Sanitizer might feel like a modern-day, scientific, and more clinical upgrade to soap. But I’m here to tell you that soap — all sorts of it: liquid, solid, honeysuckle-scented, the versions inexplicably only marketed to men or women — is a badass, and even more routinely effective than hand sanitizer. We should be excited to use it, as much as possible.”

– Brian Resnick, Senior Science Reporter at Vox.com

Your Home Is Both a Refuge and a Critical Line of Defense

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that an epidemic occurs when a community experiences a widespread, often sudden, outbreak of disease. Flu epidemics happen nearly every year in many communities. They last several weeks to several months. During these times, you’re at higher risk of getting sick with the flu. Vaccinations do reduce the danger but are not 100 percent effective. Plus, not everyone can get vaccinated.

The definition of a pandemic is when a disease is prevalent across an entire country or the world. COVID-19 is one such example.2 However, something much smaller than an epidemic or pandemic could throw your household into chaos. For example, noroviruses spread easily through contaminated food, water, and surfaces. The American Lung Association points out that even the common cold can be worrisome, especially if someone in the household has a condition such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema.3 To protect your home, follow these steps:

Pro Tip: Health and safety go hand-in-hand. For total home safety, you should also consider an alarm system like SimpliSafe. Not only will the best home alarm systems keep you and your family safe, they can also give you peace of mind if you ever need to stay overnight in the hospital due to a virus. Read more in our home security system guide.

Items such as Clear Gear Sports Spray or household disinfectants might be too expensive or sold out. In these cases, use 70 percent isopropyl alcohol OR dilute four teaspoons of household bleach into a quart of water. Rinse items after you disinfect them so they don’t get discolored or damaged.

Why These Measures?

Germs and viruses are not alive per se, but they can remain viable for a decent chunk of time.

Often, symptoms of these illnesses do not appear right away, or they’re quite mild at first. You could be contagious with no one in the household the wiser. Just one cough, sneeze, or conversation could transmit virus droplets throughout the household.

Seasonal flu and COVID-19 can be transmitted to people as far as six feet away through droplets from sneezing, coughing, or talking. These droplets land in others’ mouths or noses or are inhaled into their lungs. Flu and COVID-19 also spread when people touch an object/surface with the virus on it and then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth. However, this method of transmission is less prevalent than airborne transmission.

Noroviruses are a bit different because these viruses spread through stool-contaminated or vomit-contaminated water, food, and surfaces (including utensils). Vomiting and diarrhea are major symptoms of noroviruses as opposed to, say, coughing and sore throat.

FYI: Seniors are especially susceptible to severe symptoms from viruses like COVID-19. With this in mind, seniors should consider wearing a medical alert device. The best medical alert systems offer 24/7 coverage and instant notifications in the event of a health emergency. We test all of the popular brands, and Bay Alarm Medical is a perennial favorite. Read more in our Bay Alarm Medical review.

Apartment Buildings and “Sick Building Syndrome”

Apartment buildings usually have common areas such as lobbies and elevators. Even if workers disinfect these areas often, use sanitizer after you touch door handles, elevator buttons, and the like. Wash your hands after entering your apartment. During epidemics and pandemics, building owners and landlords may need to:

“Sick building” syndrome is real. During crises involving airborne transmission of germs and viruses, you may want to avoid poorly ventilated apartment buildings or buildings that use recycled air, even if they are your own.4 The older your apartment building, the more likely it uses an outdated and potentially dangerous HVAC system. Ask your landlord when the system was last updated and how safe it is.

Certain Items to Keep on Hand

No matter the time of year, it’s smart to have at least a few days’ worth of toilet paper, tissues, soap, and nonperishable food on hand. Of course, you may need more during flu season and virus outbreaks. Aim for two weeks to a month’s worth of these:</p

Buy these types of nonperishable food items:

Look into mail-order medications and grocery delivery, if you haven’t already. They come in handy when you can’t leave home.

Handwashing at Home

Washing your hands is the best way to prevent the spread of many illnesses. It’s also notoriously difficult but doesn’t have to be. (Sanitizer is a weaker option. Use it only if you don’t have access to soap and water.)

When to Wash Your Hands

Types of Soap to Use

If possible, use bar, liquid, or gel soap rather than foam soap.5 Foam washes off more quickly and may not last the 20-second minimum for a hand wash.

Bar soaps sometimes look slimy or gross, and bacteria do stay on wet soap. However, the bacteria do not seem to attach to the next user. To ease your mind, rinse soap bars off before lathering your hands. After handwashing, store bars in a good place to dry off.

Don’t stress over using antibacterial soaps.6 Their benefits are unproven. Regular soap works just fine.

How to Wash Your Hands

If you wear rings, it’s fine to keep them on when handwashing. However, the skin around your rings can get irritated with frequent handwashing. So, if you take your rings off, disinfect them before washing your hands. Otherwise, you put potentially contaminated jewelry back onto your hands.

Children and Handwashing

Children need time to develop handwashing skills (heck, many adults do, too). No need to scare the little ones, though. Say something such as, “To protect against nasty bugs, everyone needs to wash their hands so we don’t get sick.”

Avoid baby wipes as a handwashing substitute. They don’t remove germs and viruses. Sanitizer is OK if no soap and water are available.

Hand Sanitizer

Hand sanitizer is acceptable when soap and water aren’t available. Your sanitizer should be at least 60 percent alcohol (look at the front or back product label). Keep sanitizers out of reach of children and pets.

Coughing and Sneezing in the Home

Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, even when you’re home. It protects other residents because fewer droplets land in their respiratory system and on various surfaces.

Frequently Touched Objects and Surfaces

Remember these objects and surfaces when performing your daily clean and disinfect. If possible, do disinfecting more than once a day:

Most of these objects can be disinfected with EPA-registered disinfectants.7 Two common brands are Clorox and Lysol. Check a product’s label to be sure it works for whatever virus or illness you’re targeting.

For cellphones, tablets, and other mobile devices, Apple recommends a, “70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipe or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes.”8 Otherwise, you can use a 60 percent water and 40 percent rubbing alcohol solution. Lightly wet a cotton swab or the corner of a microfiber cloth with the solution, and wipe your device down.

To disinfect keyboards, unplug them or turn them off. If the keyboard is part of a laptop, turn the laptop off and disconnect the charging cord. If possible, remove the battery. Hold the keyboard upside down and shake it to prod some debris loose. Blow compressed air around the keyboard or try clear tape. Next, grab a disinfectant wipe. Squeeze it above the sink or trash can in case it has too much liquid. Gently use the wipe to disinfect keys and the palm rest. Don’t use wipes that have bleach (they can damage the keyboard surface).

Turn off or unplug your computer mouse and remove any batteries. Use disinfectant wipes, squeezing them first to get rid of any excess moisture. For a touchpad mouse on a laptop, turn the laptop off and use the wipe to disinfect the pad. Let your keyboard and mouse dry for at least a minute before you use them again.

Now onto something decidedly lower-tech: Throw kitchen sponges out after one-time use. Zapping them in the microwave isn’t enough. Weaker germs or viruses may die, but stronger ones survive. However, if you cannot throw sponges out after every use, that’s understandable. Wet them and heat them in the microwave for two minutes. Throw them out every two weeks.

Options for Disinfectant


Sick People at Home

It’s common for one or two people in a household to come down with an illness. Rather than resign yourself to becoming sick too, follow a few steps.

Isolate

Protect

You don’t have to do dishes or laundry for a sick person separately. However, don’t hold the person’s clothes close to your body. Wash your hands right away after touching dirty laundry.

After Recovery

How do you know when it’s OK to welcome a sick person back into the swing of life in the household? It depends on the specific illness. In general, wait until the person has been fever-free and symptom-free without the assistance of drugs for 24 hours. For illnesses such as COVID-19, wait 10 days from the onset of symptoms. Check that the person has gone 24 hours without a fever and isn’t on a fever-reducer medication. Any lingering COVID-19 symptoms should also be improving, with exceptions for loss of taste and smell. If people still cannot smell or taste, that by itself is not a reason to keep them isolated. . For noroviruses, remember that people can remain contagious even two weeks after they’ve recovered.

Guests in the Home

Maybe your neighbors have popped over for a quick visit, or you have the entire family over for five days. Either way, visitors increase the risk of someone becoming sick.

Not everyone knows proper coughing and sneezing procedures. If necessary, remind your guests to use tissues or the inside of their elbow.

If you’re sick (or think you could be sick), don’t be afraid to cancel a gathering. That’s especially true if the gathering could expose young children, senior citizens, or people with chronic health problems to a virus. If you have norovirus, do not prepare food for others when sick and for two days after symptoms go away.

Arriving Home After Being Out

Everyone has been out. You went to work then headed to the gym. Your spouse also worked then went shopping. Meanwhile, your kids attended school and hung out at a friend’s house. Now you all are home—and potentially teeming with germs and viruses. How do you make sure they don’t invade your home?

Keeping Your Home Safe During Flu and Virus Seasons

It’s a challenge to keep your home safe in the face of contagious, easily spreadable illnesses. Handwashing, no matter where you are, is the best thing you can do.

It’s also important to disinfect frequently touched surfaces, including cellphones, toilet handles, light switches, soap dispensers, and water taps. If someone in your household gets sick, don’t share anything. Give sick people their own bedroom and bathroom, if possible.

Being proactive goes a long way. Stock up on a few weeks’ worth of tissues, paper towels, and nonperishable food. Make a plan in case you need medications and food delivered to your home. Open windows, if possible. A well-ventilated home is a happy home.

Additional Resources

The Flu: Caring for Someone Sick at Home

Healthy Habits to Prevent Flu: Vaccinations and Health Habits

Children and Handwashing: A Family Activity

Coronavirus: How to Easily Clean Everyday Household Objects

Why Soap Annihilates the Coronavirus: A Chemistry Professor Explains

Norovirus Prevention: Hand Hygiene and Food Preparation

References and Footnotes

  1. Chappell, B. (2020, March 11). Coronavirus: COVID-19 Is Now Officially A Pandemic, WHO Says. Retrieved March 16, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/03/11/814474930/coronavirus-covid-19-is-now-officially-a-pandemic-who-says
  2. Facts About the Common Cold. (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2020, from https://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/influenza/facts-about-the-common-cold.html
  3. Do Air Conditioning and Ventilation Systems Increase the Risk of Virus Transmission? (Updated 2020, May 22). Retrieved December 19, 2020, from https://ghhin.org/faq/do-air-conditioning-and-ventilation-systems-increase-the-risk-of-virus-transmission-if-so-how-can-this-be-managed/
  4. The Power of Hand-Washing to Prevent Coronavirus. (2020, March 6). Retrieved March 16, 2020, from https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/926373
  5. Antibacterial Soap? You Can Skip It, Use Plain Soap and Water. Retrieved March 16, 2020, from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/antibacterial-soap-you-can-skip-it-use-plain-soap-and-water
  6. Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2. (2020, March 13). Retrieved March 16, 2020, from https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-disinfectants-use-against-sars-cov-2
  7. How to Clean Your Apple Products. (2020, March 12). Retrieved March 16, 2020, from https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT204172?mod=article_inline