Are Church Communion Chalices Harboring the Flu and Other Dangerous Bacteria?

This time of year, flu and sickness abound, as most people do their best to minimize exposure to germs. With everyone trying hard to stay healthy, it seems some churches, too, are even taking steps to help parishioners avoid common illnesses.

Houses of worship in Dallas, Texas, for instance, have taken proactive steps to help stop the spread of germs. In addition to urging parishioners to skip church until they feel better, some Catholic priests have decided not to distribute the traditional chalice, reported KTXA-TV.

The outlet noted that select faith leaders are even encouraging congregants to bow toward one another instead of risking shaking hands and spreading germs.

But these work-arounds are nothing new. Parishioners and churches, alike, take precautions every year when flu season strikes.

Chalices are, no doubt, among the most feared elements at church when it comes to the spread of infectious disease.

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With flu season upon us, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask whether these chalices — which are used most prominently by Catholic and Episcopalian churches — are a bastion of germs.

This very topic was addressed by The Daily Beast’s Keli Goff last month when she asked, “Is receiving Communion sanitary?”

The answer: it’s complicated.

Elaine Larson, an associated dean at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told Goff that germs can, indeed, be spread by the chalices.

“During flu season, it’s a bad idea,” she said of sipping from the same cup during communion. “The problem is flu is contagious about 24 hours before there are symptoms.”

This in mind, some churches have found alternative methods of distributing communion — and many houses of worship have been using these non-traditional methods for decades.

Many evangelical and non-denomination churches, for instance, give grape juice in small, individualized cups and bread is passed around on platters (Larson told Goff that, though it’s possible germs could be spread through these bread bowls, it’s not as likely as through chalices).

Many experts agree with Larson that cautiousness is best during germ season, but the general consensus has always been that the risk of spreading illnesses through chalices is low.

The Los Angeles Times also covered this issue in 2005, noting that microbiologist Anne LaGrange Loving has studied the issue and found that exposure to germs during communion is actually quite low.

“People who sip from the Communion cup don’t get sick more often than anyone else,” Loving told the outlet. “It isn’t any riskier than standing in line at the movies.”

She argued that wiping the chalice helps stop the spread of disease. And the silver and gold used to make chalices purportedly don’t harbor disease either.

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Also, protection from bacteria during communion might depend on what’s actually in the cup. For denominations using wine, the alcohol might actually provide protections.

“There is a difference sipping from a Communion cup and sipping a cup of coffee that someone left on the curb,” Loving told the Times.

In 1998, the Centers for Disease Control said that the possibility of catching illnesses from a communion cup is really not something that the public should be panicked about.

“In summary, the risk for infectious disease transmission by a common communion cup is very low, and appropriate safeguards — that is, wiping the interior and exterior rim between communicants, use of care to rotate the cloth during use, and use of a clean cloth for each service — would further diminish this risk,” the statement read in part. “In addition, churches may wish to consider advising their congregations that sharing the communion cup is discouraged if a person has an active respiratory infection (i.e., cold or flu) or moist or open sores on their lips (e.g., herpes).”

So, it seems the lesson is: Take caution and be careful, though the risk — based on expert opinion — is minimal.

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