- Experts are trying to figure out how long novel coronavirus (COVID-19) lives on surfaces. Scientists estimate between a few hours and several days.
- The type of surface, as well as the temperature, makes a difference in lasting power, studies suggest.
- Doctors stress that washing your hands well and often is the best thing you can do to protect yourself from illness.
Similar to flu viruses, this newly-discovered coronavirus, known as COVID-19, is thought to spread via airborne respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you’re within about six feet, that’s close enough to get those droplets on your face, where it can easily enter your system. That’s one of the reasons that “social distancing” is now a thing, with six feet given as the optimal, minimum perimeter between you and someone else.
But those infected droplets can also land on surfaces, where you might pick them up in other ways. For example, by setting your cell phone down on a germ-laden bathroom counter, or just putting your hands on a contaminated table and subsequently touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
Touching contaminated surfaces or objects is “not thought to be the main way [COVID-19] spreads,” the CDC notes. But experts say it’s still important to be vigilant, as it may possibly lead to infection. Here’s what we know so far about how long COVID-19 can survive on various surfaces, and what you can do to stay safe.
How long does novel coronavirus (COVID-19) survive on surfaces?
At this point, we don’t know the exact length of time that a COVID-19 droplet stays viable, according to says Debra Goff, Pharm.D., founding member of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and recent appointee to the World Health Organization antimicrobial stewardship program in low- and middle-income countries.
However, she adds, we have some really good clues based on two other widespread coronavirus strains: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). “Obviously, each strain is unique, but previous outbreaks give us a pretty decent idea of how long they stay on surfaces, because these coronaviruses are genetically related,” she says.
In fact, a study just published in The Journal of Hospital Infection looked at all the available data on SARS and MERS and their staying power on different types of surfaces. Researchers found that those coronaviruses could remain infectious between two hours and nine days, which is in line with what the World Health Organization and CDC estimate for COVID-19.
Why such a big timeframe? Because the type of surface matters, as well as the temperature of the surface. For example, on steel at 86 degrees Fahrenheit, MERS can survive between eight to 24 hours. But drop that temp down to 68, and those germs will stick around an extra day. SARS, on the other hand, must enjoy living its life to the fullest, because the study found it had considerable staying power and remained viable for four to five days on metal, wood, glass, and even paper.
Disinfecting definitely helped, the study authors noted. Researchers looked at several types of “biocidal agents” used for cleaning—such as alcohol and hydrogen peroxide—and found many of them were effective for rendering the coronavirus inactive.
New research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) echoes these findings. The study, which has not been peer-reviewed yet, found that COVID-19 can survive up to three hours in the air, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.
Bottom line: Keep washing your hands.
“Although we don’t have all the information yet about how long COVID-19 is on surfaces, we know it does remain viable for at least a little while, long enough to potentially be transmitted,” says Andres Romero, M.D., infectious disease specialist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
That’s because germs are so easily spread not only from the hands to the face, but also to other surfaces, including food, the CDC notes. You could transfer germs to everything from handrails to toys to another person’s hands—which is why experts are now suggesting you find “handshake alternatives” like simply waving.
“This virus is a moving target, and information is becoming available daily, sometimes hourly,” says Dr. Romero. “But one thing we do know for sure is that hand washing is the best approach to protecting yourself, not just from COVID-19, but also from any virus that you might pick up from a surface. Hand washing can cut down your risk by a huge amount, probably more than most people think.”
If you’re in a pinch and don’t have access to a sink, using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol can kill the virus, experts say, but it shouldn’t serve as a hand-washing substitute.
And, it doesn’t hurt to clean frequently-touched surfaces a little more often: Check out The Environmental Protection Agency’s full list of approved antimicrobial cleaning products here.
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