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Ask the expert COVID-19
Last updated April 2, 2020. 4 minute read

Here’s how long the novel coronavirus can live outside of the body

Dr. Patrick Kenney, DO

Dr. Patrick J. Kenney, DO, FACOI, is double-board certified in Internal Medicine and Infectious Disease and a faculty member of the Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston, FL in the Department of Infectious Disease.

Reviewed by Dr. Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

How long coronaviruses can live outside of the body

Coronaviruses (CoVs) are a family of viruses that cause diseases such as the common cold, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is caused by a virus called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which belongs to this family of viruses. Coronaviruses are zoonotic, which means they can be transmitted between animals and humans. A novel or new coronavirus is one that has recently jumped from animals to humans.

Since the COVID-19 virus is genetically similar to the virus that caused SARS, the durability of these respiratory viruses on surfaces may be approximately the same. A review of 22 previous studies on other types of coronavirus (not necessarily SARS-CoV-2) found that the virus can survive on surfaces such as glass, metal, and plastic for up to nine days at room temperature—but that it is easily inactivated by cleaners (Kampf, 2020).

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that SARS-CoV-2 can be detected in aerosols for up to three hours, on copper for up to four hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours (Doremalen, 2020).

If the virus is surviving on these surfaces, it is possible for the virus to get transferred to you when you touch them—even if there aren’t other people around. This is why it’s important to frequently wash your hands. It’s also important to remember that the face masks are not meant for repeat use. You should throw them away after using them for two to three hours or after being in a crowded public place or near someone who is sick.

“The CDC notes that there’s a low risk of infection from products that have been shipped from areas with outbreaks because of the virus’s “low survivability on surfaces.”

The CDC notes that there’s a low risk of infection from products that have been shipped from areas with outbreaks because of the virus’s “low survivability on surfaces” (2019-nCoV Frequently Asked Questions, 2020).

How to prevent transmission of coronavirus

First and foremost, wash your hands regularly, as this is one of the best ways to stop the spread of many pathogens, including coronavirus. You need to follow proper hand hygiene, which entails washing your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds after using the restroom, after coughing or sneezing, and before eating. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, or nose with unwashed hands. As long as a sanitizer has more than 60% alcohol concentration, it can be used when soap and water are not available. But it’s important to remember that handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is the preferred method for cutting down on transmission risk.
You should also use a disinfectant on surfaces that may be contaminated. Pay special attention to high-touch surfaces such as keyboards, touchscreens, and doorknobs or door handles, as well as any stainless steel and plastic surfaces. The virus is inactivated (or killed) by using many cleansers that can be purchased commercially. Bleach or sodium hypochlorite solutions can also be used.
Avoiding sick people is suggested—especially since many respiratory viruses look similar, and about 80% of the coronavirus cases are mild like most upper respiratory infections. However, if someone needs care, they should not be abandoned and should be directed to medical care. Technology is a great way to facilitate care without exposure and risk of infection. We are still in influenza (the flu) season, and we have been seeing many cases in our hospitals and clinics. If someone you know is sick, make sure they are getting the care they need. If you’re the one who falls ill, stay home from work or school, and seek medical attention and testing. Most health care systems have a protocol for screening for potential exposures, including some text-based screening options. Just keep in mind that these protocols might change as more areas develop cases.

How COVID-19 began

In December 2019, local health officials in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China reported several cases of pneumonia among a group of people linked to a wholesale market in Wuhan. That was the start of COVID-19. This outbreak began in a highly-populated area, in the winter months, around the time for the celebration of Chinese New Year. Since the outbreak, we have seen spread to six continents. Travel restrictions and mandated quarantines are in place to slow down the spread of the virus.
The virus has a long incubation period, which makes it difficult to fully contain, as people may be without symptoms up to 14 days after exposure. The World Health Organization (WHO) has put the incubation period between 1–14 days, with an average of around five days (Q&A on Coronaviruses, 2020). But there has been a documented case in which symptoms didn’t show up until after day 27.

How coronavirus is transmitted

The coronavirus is spread via respiratory droplets, which are produced when coughing or sneezing. Respiratory droplets do not tend to remain airborne but they can travel about six feet through the air. So, if a person is in close proximity to an infected person with respiratory symptoms or moving through a crowded area, there is a possibility of exposure. The virus can also spread if it is introduced to the mucous membranes (surfaces) in the mouth, nose, or eyes. You may get infected from touching these areas if your hands are contaminated, which is why following proper hand hygiene is so important.