Cold, Flu, & Cough: How to Clean After Illness

Reviewed on 2/22/2023

Hit Germs Where They Live

Don't let germs spread in your home after a sickness.

When a bug strikes, it's likely to hide out in sneaky places -- and stay there a while. Flu viruses live on some surfaces for about 24 hours. Norovirus, a common cause of stomach bugs, can linger for days or even weeks. And both are super contagious. Knowing how to destroy these left-behind germs can keep sickness from spreading in your home.

Clean, Then Disinfect

After a house member is sick, make sure to disinfect your home.

Wiping down the counter with soapy water can get rid of some germs and make things look tidy -- and that's fine when your family is healthy. But if someone has the flu or diarrhea or is throwing up, you want to destroy the germs, or disinfect. Look for a cleaner that specifically says "disinfectant." Or mix a quarter-cup of chlorine bleach with a gallon of hot water.

Bleach Is Best

Bleach is still best for disinfecting your home.

The CDC recommends bleach to kill the stomach bug-causing norovirus on surfaces. But if that will damage your counter or you'd rather not use it, look for "phenolic solution" on the label of a concentrated disinfectant. To kill the germs, the EPA suggests you use 2 to 4 times the recommended amount. Flu viruses can also be killed with hydrogen peroxide-based cleaners.

Microwave Your Sponge -- or Throw It Out

Dump that sponge! It may be the germiest thing in your home.

Germs love to hide in moist places. That makes the kitchen or bathroom sponge the perfect tool for spreading sickness. So if someone's sick, toss the sponge and try a microfiber cloth instead. It soaks up bacteria and other germs better than a regular rag, too. If you really want to clean with a sponge, wet it and put it in the microwave for 2 minutes first.

Wear Gloves, and Wash Your Hands

Wash your hands and wear gloves before you disinfect your home.

Disposable rubber, vinyl, or latex gloves can keep germs from hitching a ride on your hands while you clean -- and protect your skin from harsh products, too. Toss them when you're done so you don't spread disease, and always wash your hands thoroughly afterward.

Stop the Spread

Don't spread germs around your house. Use a different cloth or sponge in each room.

Be careful not to bring germs from the bathroom to the kitchen, for example, with your cloth or sponge. You can use a different color for each room to keep them straight.

Start Here: The Bathroom

The bathroom is usually the germiest in your house. Clean the bathroom before the rest of the house.

This room usually tops the ranks of household areas with the most germs. When your family is sick, it's even more of a germy hot spot. After a bug hits, disinfect here with a mix of bleach and hot water. Don't forget the toilet lever, shower faucets, cabinet handles, doorknobs, and light switches.

The Kitchen

Don't cook for 48 hours after you're sick, and make sure to disinfect your kitchen.

The stomach bug virus is tiny and easily gets into food and meal prep areas. It just takes 18 norovirus particles to make you sick. If you're the one who's ill, don't cook until you haven't had any symptoms for 48 hours. Disinfect all the things you touch, like the refrigerator handle and inside drawers, coffeepot, microwave, faucets, and stove knobs. Wash dishes and utensils in 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of hot water.

The Bedrooms

Clean your pillowcases every day in hot water if you or a family member are sick.

Change the pillowcase each day, but leave the other bed linens alone unless the sheets get soiled. If you're dealing with diarrhea or vomiting, wash dirty clothes, soiled linens, or stuffed toys right away. Don’t shake them -- that spreads germs. Wash with nonchlorine bleach in the hottest water possible, and dry on the hottest setting. Disinfect nearby night stands, bedposts, and changing tables, and look for things that could be germy. Wash pacifiers and toys with hard surfaces in the dishwasher.

The Family Room

Pay special attention to cleaning communal areas where the whole family hangs out to prevent germs from spreading.

Think about where the sick person rested: Flu germs can spread up to 3 feet away when someone coughs or sneezes. If a little one was sick, also ask: Where did they put their mouth? Then clean those areas. Don't forget sneaky hot spots like remote controls, phones, computer keypads, doorknobs, light switches -- even your car keys. For sensitive electronics, spray a fine mist of disinfectant on a cloth first, then wipe gently.

The Carpet and the Couch

Soiled rugs and upholstery should be steam-cleaned at 170 F for 5 minutes or 212 F for 1 minute to kill germs.

If poop or vomit gets on the floor or furniture, use paper towels to soak up the mess right away. Then put them in a plastic bag, tie or seal it, and throw it away. (This is another time those disposable gloves can come in handy.) Clean and disinfect the area -- soiled rugs and upholstery should be steam-cleaned at 170 F for 5 minutes or 212 F for 1 minute to kill the stomach bug norovirus.

Follow Instructions

Carefully read instructions before mixing cleaning products.

It might be tempting to mix cleaning products to make sure your home is germ-free -- but don't. Mixing some cleaners and disinfectants (like chlorine bleach and ammonia) can be harmful, even deadly. Others can irritate your eyes, nose, or throat and cause breathing problems.

Cold, Flu, & Cough: How to Clean After Illness

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