Before the Corona Virus pandemic, the act of blowing out candles on a birthday cake happened hundreds of times a day across the country and most people never gave it a second thought! However, with COVID-19 now part of our everyday lives, it is impossible to ignore the fact that this is actually an unhygienic, germ spreading practice. A study from 2017 found that blowing out birthday candles increases cake bacteria by 1,400%! So is this – and in fact even singing happy birthday face to face – now a thing of the past?
Covid-19 and other airborne transmitted diseases can be spread mainly through small droplets and airborne particles which are expelled when someone coughs, sneezes, sings, talks or even breathes. This is why social distancing between people, helps reduce the risk of those droplets from an affected person entering or coming into contact with your mucous membranes, i.e., your mouth, nose, or eyes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), there is growing evidence that droplets and airborne particles can remain suspended in the air and be breathed in by others, and travel distances beyond 6 feet (for example, during choir practice, in restaurants, or in fitness classes). In general, indoor environments without good ventilation only increase this risk as the smaller droplets and aerosols containing the virus that causes COVID-19 can remain suspended in the air for longer.
By wearing a face mask, you catch most of the little droplets that come out of your mouth before they can get into the atmosphere. There are still droplets that will get out, but you are reducing that risk. A cough or sneeze of an infected person who is not covered will significantly increase the risk of infecting others around them.
Why singing ‘Happy Birthday’ may be a health risk.
Crazy as it may sound, studies back this up. “Compared to talking, singing often involves continuous voicing, higher sound pressure, higher frequencies, deeper breaths, higher peak airflows and more articulated consonants,” say the authors of one Swedish study. “All these factors are likely to increase exhaled emissions.”
The study shows that singing—particularly loud and consonant-rich singing—spreads a lot of aerosol particles and droplets into the surrounding area. Some of these droplets are so large that they only move a few decimetres from the mouth before they fall, whereas others are smaller and may continue to hover for minutes. In particular, the enunciation of consonants releases very large droplets and the letters B and P stand out as the biggest aerosol spreaders.
And finally, an interesting fact. Candles first appeared on children’s birthday cakes in the 18th century. However, they didn’t blow the candles out even then. Instead, they were left to burn all day until after dinner, also known as cake time! Since COVID-19 is likely to be here to stay for some time, you might also want to consider some alternative ways of celebrating your birthday without spreading germs while continuing to keep safe on a day to day basis by wearing face masks, regular hand washing and use of hand sanitisers.
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