Is it safe to blow out birthday candles? Here's what experts say

Blowing out birthday candles is an age-old tradition. Should we be doing it in 2020?
Candle on a birthday cake
Blowing out candles on a birthday cake isn't a great idea during the pandemic, health experts say.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Blowing out birthday candles is an age-old tradition, but it's something that's more likely to make people cringe than cheer in the age of COVID-19.

Thanks to the pandemic, we've all become a lot more virus- and germ-conscious and the act of blowing out a candle — and potentially spreading airborne viruses — understandably makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

Case in point? Many social media users expressed concern after watching a video of Kendall Jenner blowing out her birthday candles over the weekend at a Halloween-themed party. The reality star, who turns 25 on November 3, can be seen bending over her cake in the clip as a masked waiter attempts to move out of the way. The model's mother, Kris Jenner, told Andy Cohen on SiriusXM's "Andy Cohen Live" that guests were tested before attending.

When one Twitter user posted the video to her account, it prompted many social media users to pose the following question: Is it time to retire this birthday tradition?

Why blowing out candles is risky right now

Dr. S. Patrick Kachur, professor of population and family health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, told TODAY Food he doesn't plan on blowing out candles on his birthday cake this fall and encourages others to refrain from doing so, especially if they are indoors or in a public space.

"Blowing out candles can expel virus particles, just like breathing, talking, singing, shouting, coughing and sneezing, if the person is infected," he said.

According to Dr. David M. Aronoff, director of Vanderbilt University Medical Center's Division of Infectious Diseases, blowing out candles projects breath a longer distance than regular breathing or speaking. And that can be pretty risky if you're celebrating with loved ones outside of your immediate family or quarantine bubble.

"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. 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," Aronoff said.

What if you're having a small celebration with immediate family?

We've all been spending a lot of time with our immediate families over the last few months, and if you're already seeing someone on a daily basis, is it OK to still blow out candles? It's certainly less of a risk than it would be if you're hosting a larger party.

"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. 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," Aronoff said.

Just be extra careful if you're inviting grandparents who live outside your house to the celebration.

"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,'" Kachur said.

Are there any other ways to honor this age-old tradition?

If you decide to forego the traditional "blowing out the candles" moment at your next birthday party, there are still ways to put a spin on this popular tradition.

"Every risk can be mitigated to some extent. For example, you could celebrate outside or separate the candles from the cake itself," Kachur said.

After watching Jenner's birthday video, many social media users even shared their own alternative ideas. One suggested using a paper fan to extinguish the flames and another recommended getting an individual cupcake so the guest of honor can blow out a single candle to celebrate their big day.

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Rachel Fong