The Super Bowl is always a perfect excuse to get family and friends together to watch the commercials — oops, I mean the big game — and overindulge in our favorite not-so-healthy foods and adult beverages without feeling too guilty about it. Unfortunately, the game takes place in the midst of cold and flu season, so there’s a higher risk of getting sick thanks to the way party food is served, shared, and enjoyed by so many people.

Bacteria and viruses that frequently show up in these types of group gatherings include — but are not limited to — the common cold, flu, Staph, and the highly contagious norovirus. To find out more on how these germs spread, and get tips on how to protect ourselves and guests from getting sick at this year’s Super Bowl party, we spoke with almost-local food scientists, Paul Dawson, a professor at Clemson University, and Brian Sheldon of NC State, who co-authored the book Did You Just Eat That? Two Scientists Explore Double-Dipping, the Five-Second Rule, and Other Food Myths in the Lab.

Ways Germs Spread:

Double-dipping may be the most obvious way germs are spread from person to person, and most over the age of 12 know it’s a huge no-no. But according to Sheldon and Dawson, it isn’t the only culprit when it comes to the spreading of bacteria and viruses at a shindig. There are several ways that unwanted germs can spread, such as unaware party-goers who use their hands to fill their plates instead of using utensils.

Also, anyone who coughs or sneezes will expel bioaerosols — small water droplets — that will also contaminate the area. What’s even scarier is that those same bioaerosols can be spread just by simply breathing, talking, or cheering near the food when a touchdown is made.

Even those adult beverages can be partly blamed for some contamination. Any party that involves a lot of drinking will lead to using the restroom more often. Based on some of the surveys Dawson and Sheldon cited in their book, “one out of five people do not wash their hands after using the restroom. Of those that wash them, 35% of men and 15% of women don’t use soap.”  Now consider who has been touching your food or serving your drinks! Plus, with cocktails there’s typically ice as well as garnishes like lemons and limes, which can carry microorganisms from hands to the garnish then to the drink.

Oh, and, the duo says do not assume that the alcohol you have been drinking will destroy all the germs you’ve ingested during the game — even if you’re drinking the hard stuff — because the alcohol WILL NOT kill these organisms. They say that studies have shown that alcohol at even the highest ethanol concentrations cannot rapidly destroy all bacterial pathogens within the time frame of a typical football game.

If the thought of so much contamination is alarming, Sheldon and Dawson say there are several ways to help limit the spread of bacteria at a large gathering:

  • Place [Tea Tree or Organic] hand sanitizers throughout the party area to reduce the cross contamination and potentially help keep the microbial populations down on your hands. Editor’s Note: everything we read says anti-bacterial / hand sanitizers are no bueno. We prefer Tea Tree Oil / Organic versions and lots of hand-washing with regular soap.  (This is our own addition to this point, Sheldon & Dawson recommended high alcohol (70%+) hand sanitizers.)
  • Use a separate serving utensil for each dish to prevent one serving utensil being used for multiple dishes. Providing adequate serving utensils for ALL dishes, including snack foods is advised, because not everyone will use good food handling and hygiene practices no matter how many bottles of sanitizer are available in the room. 
  • Set out tooth picks. Using toothpicks is a much better option than guests using their hands to grab something — assuming the party-goer isn’t using the toothpick as a fork and going back and forth between their mouth and the serving dish. 
  • Serve snacks like potato chips and pretzels that have a long shelf life and don’t have a ton moisture — they’re less likely to support the growth of bacteria. 
  • Use disposable paper plates so that everyone can use a clean plate when getting more food.
  • Adhere to the two-hour rule. Foods should not sit at room temperature for more than two hours. Keep track of how long foods have been sitting on the buffet table and discard anything that has been sitting there for more than two hours.  Sheldon and Dawson note that at room temperature, bacteria in food can double their population in about 20 minutes.  The greater the number of bacteria, the greater the chance you could become sick.  Refrigerate foods quickly because refrigeration will reduce the growth rates of most bacteria.

If you’re a guest at the party do your best to wash your hands frequently under warm water for at least 20 seconds, don’t double dip, use the correct utensils for each dish, and most importantly, if you’re sick STAY HOME.