When it comes to the new coronavirus going around (aka COVID-19), good hygiene seems to be our best line of defense. Because the virus has only been on our radar for a couple of months, we don’t have a preventive vaccine yet, nor do we have an effective way to treat the respiratory illness the virus causes. And though researchers are getting close to putting potential vaccines to the test, it’ll likely be about a year before they’re ready for us.
That doesn’t mean you should panic. Though some people’s illnesses will be severe, the vast majority of COVID-19 illnesses are probably going to be relatively mild, even asymptomatic (a recent report from China looking at over 72,000 infected people shows 80% of cases are mild).
Regardless, a pandemic may be coming for the United States, and now’s the time to up your personal hygiene habits in preparation, according to health experts.
Here’s how long the coronavirus can survive and spread.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty about how we can protect ourselves, let’s chat about how COVID-19 spreads and how long it may be able to survive on surfaces.
Early evidence suggests the coronavirus mainly spreads through respiratory droplets that float through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Those droplets can either land on you ― making you sick ― or they can fall onto a surface and take up residency for some time.
Exactly how long remains unclear, but early evidence suspected the virus can survive from a few hours to up to nine days at a comfy room temperature.
More research published in March found similar results. Tests from the U.S. government and other scientists found that the disease could be detected up to three hours in the air and up to 24 hours on cardboard. It also found it can linger for two to three days on surfaces like plastic and stainless steel, the Associated Press reported.
Early research also suggested that COVID-19 may also spread through people’s feces. A person doesn’t wipe efficiently, traces of poop cling onto their hands, they touch a doorknob, and boom, the virus has a new home.
Do disinfectant wipes work to eliminate the virus?
If you’ve been following coronavirus news, you’ve probably heard by now that you should be washing down all the surfaces you come across every day — at work, at school, at the airport, your phone and so on and so forth.
Public surfaces are known hotspots for dangerous bacteria and germs. A study from 2018 found that contagious, disease-causing bacteria from people’s guts and feces can be found on most public touch screens.
Most disinfecting wipes claim they can kill up to 99.9% of germs, and in a perfect world, they’re right. COVID-19 is a lipid-containing virus, which means it can be easily killed with wipes, according to Dr. Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Arizona and consultant for the restroom hygiene company Enviro-Master.
But we don’t live in a perfect world, and people misuse wipes, demolishing their effectiveness. One study found that while disinfectant wipes clear off most bacteria from surfaces, it stays on the wipe — and if it’s reused, that bacteria is transferred to the new location. To prevent this, use one wipe, then toss it.
Health experts are also recommending using ethanol or bleach-based wipes rather than benzalkonium chloride or hydrogen peroxide disinfectants. Most people don’t give bleach enough time to work its magic, though, so make a point to apply it, let it sit for a while, then wipe it clean, says Dr. Robert Amler, the dean of the school of health sciences and practice at New York Medical College and former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief medical officer.
Though you can’t overdo it with the disinfecting per se, Gerba said “people who clean more are germier because they move everything around.”
Disinfecting surfaces one to three times daily is all you really need to do to have a big impact, Gerba added.
Here’s how to properly sanitize and stay healthy.
Now that we know COVID-19 spreads through feces, we’ve got to talk about flushing. When we flush a toilet, it essentially “sneezes” and sprays tiny spurts of water all over the place — that water (which includes microscopic particles of urine, feces, bacteria, and viruses) can shoot out a couple of feet and may hit your pants and splatter on the doors, surfaces and sinks around you.
Basically, bathrooms are a danger zone and you gotta be smart about how you use the toilet. Put the seat down, take a step back, cover your face (especially your mouth and eyes), then wash your hands.
Use a disinfectant wipe in the bowl, another on the seat, and another on the lid if you are cleaning the toilet. There are also bleach-based toilet-bowl cleaners that can reduce the number of organisms expelled from a flush.
Additionally, our hands are the biggest culprit for transferring bacteria to others. Think about it: All day long, we touch our face — our eyes, nose, mouth— all the areas that can invite a virus into the body, according to Amler. It’s estimated we touch our face up to 23 times per hour.
That’s why thorough, solid hand-washing is the No. 1 way to cut your risk of getting sick. Scrub for at least 20 seconds with warm, soapy water. Most people, he added, often miss their thumbs, fingertips, and in between fingers.
“It’s not just a question of dipping your hands in the water, drying them off and moving on,” Amler said. “What we’re asking is you scrub your hands, really scrub and lather with the soap.”
Don’t forget to dry your hands, as the virus can linger on wet hands. Hand sanitizer (that’s at least 60% alcohol) is not as good as hand-washing, but it’s the next best thing, Amler said. Again, you really need to lather it on and rub it in and around your hands and fingers to destroy all the bacteria.
Some other tips from Gerba: Wash your laundry with hot water, use liquid soap as opposed to a bar, and dry your hands with paper towels, not cloth towels, to avoid spreading microorganisms around.
Make sure you’re also sanitizing your smartphone, which research shows is a hotspot for germs. Slate reported that disinfectant wipes may be fine to use on some parts; some companies also recommend using warm, soapy water and a microfiber towel (just make sure it’s a clean one, to heed the warning from Gerba above). Turn the power off and unplug your phone before you clean it. You can also purchase cleaning spray or wipes designed specifically for devices.
And don’t bother with the face masks. Health experts largely agree they won’t help — unless you’re already sick, in which case they can shield people around you from your own coughs and sneezes.
Bottom line: Take care of yourself and don’t panic ― and reach out to a doctor if you’re feeling ill or displaying any symptoms.
This piece has been updated to include information on disinfecting phones.