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Ask the expert COVID-19
Last updated September 10, 2021. 4 minute read

How long COVID-19 can live outside of the body

Research shows that coronavirus can be detected on surfaces for long periods of time, but scientists have found that it’s unlikely a person might be infected by touching a contaminated surface.

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 Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

How long coronaviruses can live outside of the body

Coronaviruses 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 from animals to 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 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)

A study in the Lancet also found that SARS-CoV-2 remains on various surfaces for different lengths of time. For example, it was detected on paper for three hours, wood and cloth for two to three days, and glass for up to seven days. However, the virus was very susceptible to disinfectants and was not detected on most surfaces five minutes after disinfecting (Chin, 2020).

Research has shown that it’s unlikely for a person to get infected with COVID by touching a surface. Most of the evidence seems to show that the virus itself isn’t very stable outside of our bodies and only non-infectious remnants of the virus remain on surfaces (Goldman, 2020). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that after SARS-CoV-2 has been on an object for 72 hours (three days), it is unlikely to transmit the virus to a human (CDC, 2021).

The CDC notes that there’s a low risk of infection from objects (fomites) because of the virus’s “low survivability on surfaces.”

The CDC notes that there’s a low risk of infection from objects (fomites) because of the virus’s “low survivability on surfaces” (CDC, 2021a). So what does that mean? No need to scrub your groceries with disinfectant before putting them in your fridge.

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. What does this mean? Wash 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. If you use hand sanitizer, make sure it has more than 60% alcohol concentration. 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.
  
Avoid spending time with people outside your own household, especially without a mask. Since the symptoms of many respiratory viruses can be similar, and about 80% of the coronavirus cases are mild or asymptomatic, you may not know if a person is even sick with COVID-19.

However, if someone needs medical attention, they should seek it. Technology is a great way to facilitate care without exposure and risk of infection. 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 to avoid exposing others and seek medical attention and testing. Most health care systems have a protocol for screening for potential exposures, including some digital screening options.

When did COVID-19 begin?

In December 2019, local health officials in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China reported several cases of pneumonia that were later identified as COVID-19. The outbreak began in a highly-populated area, in the winter months, around the time for holiday gatherings. Since the outbreak, it has spread around the world. Travel restrictions and mandated quarantines were put 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 not have symptoms for 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 (WHO, 2020).

How coronavirus is transmitted

The coronavirus is spread via respiratory droplets, which are produced when you cough or sneeze. Respiratory droplets do not tend to remain airborne but they can travel about six feet through the air. So, if a person is near 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.

If you are exposed to a person with coronavirus, the CDC recommends self-quarantining for 10 days. Some people never develop symptoms of coronavirus, even if they are infected, so even if you feel well, it’s important to stay away from others. You can also get tested for coronavirus by a healthcare provider.

If you are diagnosed with coronavirus, the CDC recommends that you isolate (even from the people in your own household if possible). It’s especially important to stay away from people who are at risk of developing a serious case of the virus if exposed. This includes people over the age of 65, those with underlying respiratory conditions like asthma or COPD, and individuals with immune system disorders (CDC, 2021b).

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2021a April 5). Science Brief: SARS-CoV-2 and Surface (Fomite) Transmission for Indoor Community Environments. Retrieved September 10, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/science-and-research/surface-transmission.html#ref8

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2021b July 19). COVID-19 Quarantine and Isolation. Retrieved September 10, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/faq.html
  2. Chin, A., Chu, J., Perera, M., Hui, K., Yen, H. L., Chan, M., Peiris, M., & Poon, L. (2020). Stability of SARS-CoV-2 in different environmental conditions. The Lancet. Microbe1(1), e10. doi:10.1016/S2666-5247(20)30003-3. Retrieved from https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanmic/article/PIIS2666-5247(20)30003-3/fulltext

    Doremalen, N. V., Bushmaker, T., Morris, D. H., Holbrook, M. G., Gamble, A., Williamson, B. N., … Munster, V. J. (2020). Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1. New England Journal of Medicine. doi: 10.1056/nejmc2004973, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32182409
  3. Goldman, E. (2020, AUGUST 01) Exaggerated risk of transmission of COVID-19 by fomites. The Lancet, Infectious Disease: VOLUME 20, ISSUE 8, P892-893, Retrieved from https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(20)30561-2/fulltext
  4. World Health Organization (WHO). Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19). (2020, February 23). Retrieved February 29, 2020, from https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses