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Infectious Diseases

Updated 20 March 2020

How long can coronavirus survive in the air and on surfaces; and why do you need to wash your hands?

Research shows the new coronavirus can survive for a significant amount of time on some surfaces. Therefore, it’s extra important to wash your hands, even when you can’t control the surfaces around you.

Whenever we see images of the coronavirus pandemic in the news, we associate it with hazmat suits and people deep-cleaning healthcare settings and places where people might have been exposed to the virus.

By now we know that the new coronavirus, officially named SARS-CoV-2, but better known as the Covid-19 virus, is spread by droplets through coughing, sneezing, touching and talking, but researchers are still working hard to determine exactly why this virus is spreading so rapidly.

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine explores the viability of the Covid-19 virus on certain surfaces.

What the researchers tested

For the purpose of this study, the researchers from several institutions, including the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the University of California, tested the viability of both the Covid-19 virus and the SARS virus on plastic, in aerosols, on stainless steel, copper and cardboard.

It showed that the Covid-19 virus was more stable on hard, none-porous surfaces such as plastic and stainless steel than on copper and cardboard. The virus was detected for up to 72 hours after exposure on plastic and stainless steel, even though it became a bit weaker and less infectious later on.

The Covid-19 virus remained viable in aerosols for three hours after exposure, but also showed a decline in potency. 

The research also showed that the Covid-19 virus was able to survive a little longer on all surfaces than the SARS virus, even though both viruses seemed a bit less contagious after a while.

What this means for your safety

Right now, you might not be able to control surfaces in public spaces, even though efforts are being made to sanitise as much as possible in our environment. This is why it’s vital to wash or sanitise your hands before touching your face and eyes.

What you can do

According to the WHO, there are a couple of things you can do to protect yourself, especially keeping in mind that the virus can remain viable on surfaces. They suggest the following:

  • Wash your hands meticulously for up to 20 seconds, especially after doing grocery shopping, touching public surfaces, going to the bathroom and before touching your face.
  • Listen to any governmental advice and practise self-isolation. This is not to spread panic, but simply to eliminate the spread of the virus in public areas.
  • Keep your distance from other people in public, especially in the queues and near counters in supermarkets. Respect the personal space of anyone working in shops.
  • Keep your own house clean when coming in from outside. Regularly wipe your kitchen and bathroom surfaces with a disinfectant cleaner.
  • Cover your mouth with a disposable tissue or a flexed elbow when you cough or sneeze. This will avoid droplets being spread onto surfaces through hands.
  • If you yourself are prone to coughing and sneezing and worried about spreading droplets, or if you are caring for someone who is sick, wear a protective mask around your mouth and nose. 

Image credit: iStock