According to the researchers, this tradition could be spreading germs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Nashia Baker
November 04, 2020
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Party planning comes with even more challenges this year. In addition to choosing a theme and picking out decorations, you'll also need to find ways to ensure everyone stays safe during the gathering in light of the COVID-19 pandemic—this is especially true for birthdays. While social distancing, frequent hand washing and sanitizing, and mask wearing are all necessary when having a get-together with a group, you might need to change one common tradition for birthdays, too: blowing out candles on top of a birthday cake. Dr. S. Patrick Kachur, the professor of population and family health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, shared that it is better to avoid this common practice since it can easily spread bacteria, Today reports. "Blowing out candles can expel virus particles, just like breathing, talking, singing, shouting, coughing, and sneezing, if the person is infected," he said.

birthday cake with candles and sparklers
Credit: Getty / Betsie Van der Meer

Blowing out birthday candles is also riskier because the action makes your breath go a longer distance than it would when you normally breath and speak, Dr. David M. Aronoff, director of Vanderbilt University Medical Center's Division of Infectious Diseases, said. "This is problematic because it could be the case that the person blowing out the candles is infected with SARS-CoV-2 and does not know it," he added. "Blowing their breath out with force could project virus particles a greater distance than simply breathing or speaking, particularly if the person would otherwise have a cloth face covering on."

It is still possible to blow out candles, though, specifically if you are only surrounded by people you see on an everyday basis. "If the person blowing out the candles on a cake is doing so around people with whom they already live (housemates, family members, etc.) then it is likely they are already sharing their breaths without masks on," Dr. Aronoff said. "Thus, the risk is not as high as if the candle-blower was doing this in public or around people with whom they do not share a household."

Before deciding on your guest list, it is also important to think through who could be most at risk of the group before celebrating any festivities. "Children can also spread coronavirus, even if they are otherwise well. And families that include older members and others at higher risk of severe illness should probably not consider it. Nor should you involve friends or family members outside your small 'quarantine bubble,'" Dr. Kachur said. And even though the small party might look different, don't hesitate to put a spin on tradition. "Every risk can be mitigated to some extent," Dr. Kachur adds. "For example, you could celebrate outside or separate the candles from the cake itself."

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