It’s a scene you know well: A family member has been home sick on the couch or in the recliner all day, and their germs have likely contaminated the whole house. You can disinfect your counters, doorknobs and even toothbrushes, but what about your furniture?

It's possible, according to L. Jeff Bishop, technical advisor for Society of Cleaning and Restoration Technicians (SCRT), a nonprofit trade group. But don’t reach for that can of disinfecting aerosol spray just yet.

“Most consumers are looking for fast, inexpensive and effective ways to clean and disinfect household furnishings and fixtures,” says Bishop. “However, often they are victims of overly simplistic advertising: “One spray in the middle of a room disinfects everything!” This is not credible nor possible.”

Here’s the safe way to disinfect your furniture without harming it, according to Bishop.

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Upholstered furniture

1. Vacuum. Use your vacuum cleaner on upholstered furniture. Vacuuming fabrics with the upholstery and crevice attachments (nothing with harsh bristles) keeps dirt from building up and wearing into furniture over time, according to University of Nebraska Lincoln's cooperative extension.

“Fine particle soils, along with microbial fragments, can sift downward into furniture layers, unless removed with frequent vacuuming,” Bishop says. “If not removed regularly — and especially during high-humidity conditions — harmful microorganisms can grow within the furniture itself.”

After you vacuum, flip the cushions over.

2. Spray. Don’t take cushions out of their covers to clean them. The covers might shrink in the wash and no longer fit over the cushion. Instead, apply a spray-on, water-based detergent, like an upholstery-cleaning detergent or liquid soap and water.

Check the labels on your upholstery before shopping for a detergent, since each type of fabric can have different recommendations. And test the cleaning solution on a less noticeable spot to make sure it doesn’t discolor the fabric.

3. Agitate, wait, then wipe. Rub in the detergent uniformly to avoid spots and uneven drying patterns. Then wait 5 to 10 minutes for the detergent to dissolve into the fabric and suspend the dirt and oils, advises the SCRT. Wipe the residue away from the surface with a clean cloth. Allow the fabric to dry completely to prevent a moist environment where microorganisms can grow.

“These steps not only kill most viruses and bacteria, but also rinse and remove suspended soils from fabrics,” says Bishop.

If this seems too daunting, Bishop recommends hiring a upholstery cleaning professional, especially you’re concerned about viral or bacterial infections. Consult the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification for an index of certified professionals near you.

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Wooden and hard furniture

1. Identify the type of finish your wood furniture has: a hard finish or an oil one. Here’s how, according to home furnishing specialists at the University of Kentucky:

  • Get some boiled linseed oil, available at hardware stores.
  • Rub a few drops into a hidden part of the furniture (in case it affects the stain).
  • If the oil beads up, you have a hard finish. If the oil gets absorbed, you have an oil finish.

2. Disinfect hard finishes with one of two options, depending on the material, says Bishop.

Furniture with a plastic veneer is easy to clean by spraying a disinfectant or wiping the surface with an antimicrobial wipe, according to Bishop. But for other types of hard finishes, you may want to opt for a mild detergent solution. This method still cleans off soils and germs, says Bishop.

“Furniture that is painted or has multiple coats of finish can be damaged by repeated applications of harsh detergents or disinfectants that contain alcohol or other dry solvents,” he notes.

3. If the furniture has an oil finish, start with three soft, lint-free cloths. If you’re using a rag of clothing or an old shirt, make sure buttons and seams are removed so they don’t scratch the furniture.

Dip one cloth in a sudsy, mild soap and water solution. Wring it out thoroughly and use it to scrub the furniture. Then wet the second cloth with water and use it to rinse the soap off the furniture’s surface. Finally, dry with the last cloth.

If the wood is dry, or if there is dirt or wax buildup, furniture specialists recommend applying a furniture cleanser-conditioner with a damp cloth. These conditioners can be store bought (think oil soaps for wood) or made at home. If you’re making it at home, here’s a recipe from experts at Utah State University.

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Chelsea Rice is a freelance health writer living in Boston. She's written for Boston.com, The Boston Globe, HealthLeaders Media and Minority Nurse magazine.