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How to Clean & Disinfect After Someone in Your Home Has the Flu

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Even if you're not at home right now, horizontal and headache-y and guzzling water while binge-watching Man in the High Castle, you know it's flu season. It is, literally, in the air. Which means that even if you adopt a scrupulous hand-washing regimen and get The Shot (and you should do both these things), it's likely that someone you know—maybe even someone who you live with, maybe you—will get it.

When my cohabitant came down with the flu last weekend, I transformed overnight into a one-woman cleaning service. I couldn't reverse time and force ask him to get a flu shot, but I could wage war on the flu germs in our apartment. While he snoozed, I spent some time on the CDC and EPA websites and formed a plan of attack: Here's how to disinfect your house when someone who lives with you has the flu.

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Photo by Mark Weinberg

Washing your hands and covering your mouth when you cough and sneeze prevent flu germs from escaping onto surfaces, but inevitably some will if you're lounging around home, sick. According to the CDC, flu germs can linger on surfaces for anywhere from 2 to 8 hours—longer on harder surfaces, like stainless steel, than something porous like the fabric of your couch. The path to destroying them is bifold: First, you'll want to clean, then you'll want to sanitize or disinfect.

Here's the difference, and how to best launch your attack:

cleaning

Cleaning is the use of soap or detergent and water to remove germs from a surface—cleaning doesn't kill germs, but it will lessen their ranks and put you in a better position to kill them off soundly, so it's Step 1. Your preferred general household cleaner will work just fine for this task: Clean the house the way you normally would, taking care to swap in a new rag when one gets mucky.

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To actually kill residual germs, you'll need to take a Step 2—either sanitize or disinfect.

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sanitizing

According to the EPA, sanitizing is a process by which you can "reduce to a safe level, but not totally eliminate, microorganisms on a treated surface." It's sufficient, in many cases, for beating down flu viruses to the point where they can't getcha. Devices that reach high heats, and certain chemicals, will help you sanitize things like small home goods, porous surfaces like fabrics, and floors. (Temperatures between 167-212° F, according to the CDC, are required to kill the flu virus—so be careful!)

  • Launder all sheets, blankets, and clothing that have been touched on high heat, using detergent, and then dry them on high heat as well (and don't "hug" them in-between loads!). Most pillows and comforters can be run through a dryer on high heat, too—I found this made ours delightfully fluffy, a bonus—just check the labels first.
  • Heat-safe toys, dishes, and utensils should be run through a dishwasher, using detergent. If you don't have one, set up a 3-pronged sanitizing station: Wash them in hot (110º F, at least), soapy water, using a clean dishcloth to scrub; rinse in a stream of clean hot water in a separate compartment; then plunge the cleaned items in a food-grade sanitizing (or in water above 171º F for 30 seconds); air dry. Toss any sponges you've been using.
  • A steam mop can be used to sanitize floors the same way, if you're concerned about them (I don't have one so I didn't do this).
Photo by Mark Weinberg

disinfecting

Many high-risk surfaces (more on what those are, here) need to be disinfected, which is defined by the killing of 99.999% of microscopic organisms on them. Disinfecting is achieved by wiping them EPA-approved, antimicrobial chemicals. Here, it's important to read the labels to be sure that a) the product actually disinfects, b) the EPA approves it as a disinfectant, and c) you're leaving the particular chemical on for long enough to kill the germs.

On "natural" disinfectants:

  • A bleach solution can be used to disinfect, but recently the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics declared it an asthmagen—and since concentrations of EPA-registered bleaches can vary, getting the correct dilution can be confusing. So: not the best choice.
  • Nor is vinegar, sadly, which will kill lots of germs and is biodegradable—because it's actually not registered as a disinfectant because it doesn't kill bacteria like staphylococcus. Not to say you can't use it around the house, but if you're trying to kill flu germs, you might want something stronger.
  • Same goes for tea tree oil—definitely has disinfectant properties but isn't registered as something that will kill off norovirus (which is not the flu, but also terrible and also in season).
  • Here's the EPA's 2016 approved list of norovirus-killing chemicals to shop for. They simply recommend reading labels to see what products are EPA-approved for use against "Influenza A virus." And if you prefer the safest, most environmentally-friendly options, they recommend looking for certification from third-party organizations like EcoLogo and Green Seal on the container.

All this said, you do not need to take drastic measures to kill flu germs! No fumigating. To quote the CDC, "flu viruses are relatively fragile, so standard cleaning and disinfecting practices are sufficient to remove or kill them."

Surfaces you should disinfect:

Short answer: Anything that's frequently touched. A list I compiled by obsessively considering the surfaces we touch all the time in our apartment:

Photo by Mark Weinberg
  • Door knobs (don't forget the front door, and any handles on cabinets!),
  • Light and lamp switches,
  • Window parts: the doo-hickey you tug on to open or close curtains and blinds, window locks,
  • Thermostats, radiator valves, humidifier knobs (and AC buttons, if you're for some reason still using one),
  • Hardware such as faucets and their knobs,
  • On/off buttons on appliances: oven knobs, microwave buttons, blender switches
  • Handles—on the fridge, freezer, oven, dishwasher, etc.—and drawer pulls
  • Remote control(s) and "on" buttons (for a TV, stereo, turntable, etc.)
  • Pens and keyboards
  • Phones
  • Toys
  • Built-in surfaces your hands often graze: the kitchen counter, the breakfast table

If you need a place to concentrate your efforts, tackle food prep areas (i.e., the kitchen) and the bathroom with all your might. Since flu germs can be transmitted by any and all bodily fluids, these rooms require special attention (it's a good idea to have any infected persons just use one bathroom if your house has several, for this reason).

Any other tips for cleaning up after the flu? Share your tips in the comments.

Tags: flu season, disinfecting