Avoiding Disease in Apartment Buildings

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“If you’re sick, stay home.” We’ve seen that a million times in the news reports lately. But what happens if “home” is an apartment building shared by hundreds of other people? How can neighbors protect themselves from infected neighbors? There’s a lot of hype out there, much of it unnecessary. So today we’ll be taking a quick look at some more practical ways to to minimize transmission of diseases in high density housing situations such as apartment buildings and dorms, mostly because I’d be remiss to avoid the topic. But I’ll also be taking a moment to adjust our attitudes about media sensations and their effects on daily living situations.

Assume someone is always sick.

COVID-19 isn’t the first disease to threaten us. There’s always some contagious bug or another floating around, some more obnoxious or harmful than others. Therefore, when you choose your own disease-protection methods, make sure that they are habits you can keep up on a recurring basis without a substantially detrimental impact on your daily life. Committing to a whole litany of self-cleansing rituals temporarily because of media-induced panic is not a good idea. Diseases are a constant presence in high density housing, and yet you generally do not hear of entire apartment complexes contracting major diseases simultaneously.

Assume someone is always at risk.

You may be a healthy person, but apartment buildings by their very nature tend to attract people who are not healthy enough to maintain or afford their own homes. You have to figure that at any given point, someone in your apartment building is living in a high risk health care scenario. They may be on immunosuppressant medications. They may be HIV positive. They may be older than you or younger than you, putting them at higher risk of developing a fatal form of your minor case of the sniffles. So while a constant state of hypervigilance against bacteria and viruses is not recommended or necessary, it is certainly a sane and rational idea to minimize your ability to transmit said cases of the sniffles to others living near you.

In other words, if you’re sick, stay in your own apartment.

Wash your hands.

Technically I could stop this article after this paragraph. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after coming in contact with any surface likely to carry bacteria or viruses. If you aren’t near a sink, use a hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol, covering all of your hands with it fully and waiting for it to dry before proceeding.

Keep the air clean and moving.

Some apartment buildings share airflow between units more than others. Try to open your windows for at least half an hour every day to get some fresh air in unless it’s so cold out that doing so will risk freezing your pipes. If you have access to your own furnace, lean towards using 1 month filters and changing them frequently rather than using the longer lasting ones that can build up a whole season’s worth of germs.

Wash your hands after changing furnace filters.

Avoid high-contact surfaces.

Different diseases have different lifespans outside of the human body. Some can live in the air for several hours, others can survive on surfaces for even longer. If at all possible, avoid touching surfaces that other people also tend to touch a lot. If you must touch them, disinfect them first using an approved cleaning agent (epa.gov PDF) and following the directions on the container. These include but are not limited to:

  • Elevator buttons
  • Sponges
  • Workout equipment
  • Doorknobs
  • Trash chute handles
  • Counters and tabletops
  • Party room facilities
  • Cell phones
  • Stairway handrails

Wash your hands after touching any high-contact surfaces.

Laundry room precautions.

I did some digging on this. The folks in high volume laundry (uniforms, hospitals, etc.) are recommending elevated water temperatures for washing clothes and use of high concentration hospital-grade disinfectants on all laundry surfaces. That’s a bit excessive for apartment laundry rooms and it’s likely to ruin your clothes. So will the use of bleach on everything.

So here’s what I would recommend. Don’t touch anyone else’s laundry. Don’t set your laundry on any surfaces in the laundry room. Transfer it directly from your hamper or basket into the machines. Do not leave your hamper or basket in the laundry room. If no dryer is available after your wash cycle completes, transfer it back to your hamper or basket, take it back to your apartment and check back later for an empty dryer. If you’re the type who likes to fold their laundry, do so back in your apartment rather than on tables provided in the laundry room.

You might want to also consider wiping down the insides of washing machines with a damp cloth before using them. Even if you are practical enough to avoid dousing the things with bleach, this doesn’t mean that the COVID-obsessed guy who used the machine before you was equally bright.

Wash your hands after any trip to a shared apartment laundry room.


This is going to sound weird, and for some of the more introverted readers out there it’s going to sound pretty daunting. People who engage in more face to face interaction with others have been found to have stronger immune systems overall. So if you’re healthy, get out there and start talking to people. You don’t have to make them your friends, you don’t have to make them your life partners. You don’t have to continue to associate with people you consider to be toxic or harmful. But do try to maintain a reasonably high number of daily interactions with other people.

Wash your hands after any social interactions.

Despite the near-constant presence of unwell people in apartment buildings, most people manage to get through the majority of their time as renters without picking up a disease from their neighbors. So take all of these suggestions as things to help you feel more at ease if the media has got you feeling stressed about the latest trendy virus. Other than the link to the EPA’s list, nothing in this article is specific to COVID-19. These are all basic things you can do to keep your home environment a little healthier.

RentConfident is a Chicago startup that provides renters with the in-depth information they need to choose safe apartments. Help us reach more renters! Like, Share and Retweet us!

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Kay Cleaves

Founder and owner of RentConfident. She's the primary developer of the website and research engine code. She's spent over 10 years working in the Chicago rental industry and has assisted with over 1200 leases.