Health And Wellness

Is Blowing Out Birthday Candles As Gross As We Now Think It Is?

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Blowing Out Candles Was Gross All Along, Not Just During The Pandemic

To a mask-wearing populace purposefully engaged in the avoidance of all things breath and spit, the practice of blowing out birthday candles is an act that could turn a happy celebrant into a social pariah, or worse

Covid-19 has changed the way we do certain things, and may have a permanent effect on social gatherings like birthdays.

While flinging our fluids around willy nilly while blowing out birthday candles seems unsafe these days, was it ever really a sound practice? 

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In relatively normal, disease-free conditions, it turns out that it’s okay to participate in this birthday ritual with friends and family, if you can stomach the thought of eating great grandma’s aerosolized spit, that is. 

A 2017 study from Clemson University and published by the Journal of Food Research concluded that a birthday cake with blown-out candles has the potential to hold up to 120 times the amount of germs found on a fresh cake. It turns out that even the average birthday cake blower can pelt the surface of their icing with 14 times as many germs as an untouched cake. 

These figures may sound scary, but it’s important to note that while the human mouth is filled to the brim with creepy germs, very few of them are the kind that are looking to cause any problems. Over 700 species of microbes exist in the mouth, with most of them performing normal, natural, symbiotic tasks that help with regular processes that none of us ever think about. 

The body’s microbiome is incredibly helpful to us, and aids in preventing disease and contributing to a healthy, functioning mouth, digestive system, heart, and mind. We’ve barely scratched the surface in learning about all the benefits that our invisible armies bring to our bodies, but what we do know is that caring for them is of the utmost importance

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Even though our mouths are relatively safe under normal conditions, for germaphobes and hyper health-conscious members of the population, the practice of blowing out candles may still be an uncomfortable thought exercise. What can someone do to ensure they’re protected to the best of their ability? 

Simply avoid eating cake that’s been blown on by someone who’s visibly sick, for one thing. Since most people are dodging anyone with the sniffles already, this shouldn’t be too hard to manage. When the pandemic is over, though, and the fear that SARS-CoV-2 could be among the germs ice skating atop the buttercream swirls has melted away, avoiding sick spit will still be a solid gameplan. 

To demonstrate just how susceptible the average person might be to contracting an illness via birthday cake, the staff at Inside Edition experimented with one of their very own colleagues. Prior to the spread of Covid in 2019, they watched as a sick coworker blew out the candles on a cake and sent before and after swabs to a lab. Within a few weeks, the results came in, identifying bacteria that could cause skin and respiratory infections. 

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Of course, the responsibility of knowing when to refrain from blowing on an entire dessert often lies with the spit spewer themselves, so if you have a friend who isn’t known to be the considerate type, you may have a problem.

For what may turn out to be the first time in the history of the universe, it’s probably safe to say that you should be more like Mitt Romney than Kendall Jenner. 

While Jenner chose to blow out her candles in the middle of a pandemic as a horrified waiter struggled to escape the stream, Romney hilariously pulled out each of his candles, one at a time, to individually blow them out.

At the time, the senator was mercilessly roasted for what seemed like quirky, antisocial behavior from a wealthy, out of touch politician. At this point, it’s not difficult to see which one of these things aged better. 

Even if partygoers are increasingly mindful and take extra precautions going forward, a social tradition that’s this embedded in global culture will be hard to give up.

Just staring at that candied blue rose on one’s fork while imagining the airlifted microbes scaling it like K-2 will certainly be enough to give some people pause, possibly forever.

Believe it or not though, there are also benefits to eating cake after the candles have been blown out. 

Research from the University of Minnesota and published in Psychological Science suggests that rituals like blowing out the candles on a birthday cake actually make it taste better.

The study followed participants who engaged in ritual behavior before consuming birthday cake or other food or beverages. The results were so promising that the team began looking into how the experiment could be used to limit surgical pain and promote healing. 

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It’s important to be as informed as possible when it comes to matters of public health. The pandemic has shown us that often enough.

Eating a birthday cake with a soggy top coat of phlegm might be eminently gross, but outside of an international outbreak of a deadly disease, it’s an extremely harmless human ritual, and one that may even improve the taste of the triple layer chocolate decadence waiting on your plate. 

Be sure to avoid consuming birthday cake if the candles are blown out by someone who seems like they have a cold, or if you yourself have a compromised immune system.

It’s not a social taboo to ask someone whether or not they’re sick or have been sick recently, either. As we’re all becoming more conscious of sound public health practices, our rituals may not give way to paranoia, but they will need to adapt to common sense. 

Kevin Lankes, MFA, is an editor and author. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Here Comes Everyone, Pigeon Pages, Owl Hollow Press, The Huffington Post, The Riverdale Press, and more.