The truth about coronavirus on surfaces

You reach for a can of soup at the store. Or you’re about to sit down in a waiting room chair at the auto repair shop. Suddenly, red flags for novel coronavirus (COVID-19) fly through your mind.

Is this safe?

Here’s some straight scoop for you.

Yes, the virus lives on surfaces – door handles, countertops, clothing, furniture and much more. How long the virus survives on a given surface varies from hours to days, depending on numerous factors.

Yes, you can become infected with the virus after touching a contaminated surface.

But no, it’s not likely you would get sick that way – especially if you diligently practice good hand hygiene.

“We keep saying the same things your mother taught you when you were growing up. Frequent hand washing throughout the day is the best way to protect yourself,” said Lori Grooms, director of Infection Prevention and Control, Quality and Safety for OSF HealthCare.

Touching objects will not make you sick

The consensus among experts is that COVID-19 spreads primarily from person to person, via those famous “respiratory droplets.” We emit these microscopic particles when we breathe. We emit them in increasing quantity, and send them further distances, when we talk, sing, shout, cough or sneeze.

That’s why wearing a mask and social distancing are recommended best practices.

So, how do surfaces come into play?

First, those droplets land where they land: carpet, desktops, keyboards, clothes, furniture, etc. If you touch a droplet, whatever bacteria or virus is in the droplet can be transmitted to the next thing you touch. That might be a doorknob – or it might be your mouth.

Which is why good hand hygiene is so important.

“This is a respiratory virus. It mainly attacks your respiratory system, so it needs to have contact with a mucus membrane, such as in your nose, mouth or eyes,” Lori said.

In other words, simply touching a contaminated surface will not make you sick. The problem starts when you use unwashed or unsanitized hands to eat or scratch your nose or rub your eyes.

Even then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that such contact is not believed to be the main way the virus spreads.

Listen to Mom: Wash your hands

How much virus is concentrated on a surface? How long has it been there? Has the virus been exposed to direct sunlight? What is the air temperature and humidity?

All of these are factors affecting the relative risks that come with touching surfaces.

We can’t know all of the answers, so it’s best to be safe and follow Mom’s admonition.

But we should not worry about everything we touch on a trip to the store. We don’t need to wipe down every pizza box or postal package we bring into our home.

“The likelihood of picking up coronavirus from a cardboard package is very slim. It’s been shown the virus can survive 24 hours on cardboard, but that doesn’t mean it’s present in a level where it will cause infection,” Lori said. “Just wash your hands after you handle the package.”

The same goes for your groceries, whether you have them delivered or go to the store yourself.

“Wash your fresh items, like fruits and vegetables,” Lori said. “Things that are not in sealed packages – like broccoli, onions, oranges – you should always be cleaning anyway. It’s not necessary to clean prepackaged items. The virus can live on those surfaces, but you don’t consume all your groceries in one day. Chances are, even if the virus was there, it will die off before you touch the package again.

“That said, always clean your hands before and after you prepare food and before you consume food.”

Don’t shake your dirty laundry

The virus can live on fabric, such as clothing or on your sofa.

“But cloth really isn’t an effective mode of transmission,” Lori said. “You would have to touch the specific spot – and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth.”

One precaution with fabric Lori does advise: Don’t shake out your clothes and linens. If the virus is present, shaking will send particles into the air to be inhaled. Instead, gently place the items in a pile of dirty laundry.

Then wash your hands and wipe down the counter top. And go about your life.

“We can’t live in a world where we’re paranoid to touch things,” Lori said. “The best thing you can do is what your mother told you: Wash your hands.”

Last Updated: May 28, 2020

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About Author: Kirk Wessler

After being a writer for OSF HealthCare for three years, Kirk Wessler retired in January 2022. A Peoria native and graduate of Bradley University, Kirk's experience included working for newspapers in Missouri, Texas and the Peoria Journal Star.

Kirk and his wife, Mary Frances, have five sons, four daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren. Kirk plans to spend his retirement on the golf course, mastering the guitar and traveling.

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Categories: COVID-19