How Long Does COVID-19 Live on Surfaces?

Renee Fabian
Man's hands cleaning sink in the bathroom

Since day one of the COVID-19 outbreak, the advice from health professionals has been to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds each time to reduce your risk of getting the virus. As things develop, we’ve also started wondering if it’s safe to get groceries or takeout from restaurants delivered, and just how long the novel coronavirus can live on surfaces.

Because COVID-19 is new to humans, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how long the virus can live on various surfaces and more research is needed. Here’s what we know so far about how long COVID-19 — a coronavirus that causes a respiratory infection, including fever, coughing and shortness of breath — can live on surfaces.

How Long Does COVID-19 Last on Surfaces?

A recent study conducted by researchers at UCLA, the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Princeton University tested how long SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19, lasted on a variety of surface types.

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Researchers simulated real-world conditions in a lab and measured how long they could detect the virus. Here’s how long they found trace amounts of the virus on each surface tested:

  • Copper: Four hours
  • Cardboard: 24 hours
  • Plastic: Three days
  • Steel: Three days

However, there’s an important caveat that goes along with these results, according to Carolyn Machamer, Ph.D., a professor of cell biology whose lab at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. A lab study like this provides a more ideal environment for a virus to survive than the real world.

“What’s getting a lot of press and is presented out of context is that the virus can last on plastic for 72 hours — which sounds really scary,” Machamer told Johns Hopkins. “But what’s more important is the amount of the virus that remains. It’s less than 0.1% of the starting virus material. Infection is theoretically possible but unlikely at the levels remaining after a few days. People need to know this.”

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Are Delivery, Mail and Food Safe?

Based on what we know so far about COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it’s much more likely you’ll get the virus through respiratory droplets from being in close contact with someone who is infected. There are no reports of people being infected with SARS-CoV2 from imported goods, like a delivery from Amazon.

“There is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures,” wrote the CDC. “Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread most often by respiratory droplets. Currently, there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with imported goods and there have not been any cases of COVID-19 in the United States associated with imported goods.”

Similarly, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said COVID-19 seems to spread mostly through direct contact with an infected person. If you are at risk due to a contaminated surface, washing your hands and avoiding touching your face can help lower your risk.

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“The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person,” wrote the FDA, adding:

It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. However, it’s always critical to follow the four key steps of food safety — clean, separate, cook and chill – to prevent foodborne illness.  

What About Shoes and Clothing?

Researchers haven’t yet explored how long SARS-CoV2 can live on clothing or shoes, but in general, experts believe it could be a few hours to days, depending on the type of material. Regardless, it’s still unlikely you will get the virus from clothing or your shoes unless you come within 6 feet of someone infected with COVID-19.

“There is no evidence to say that the coronavirus comes into the house from shoes,” public health specialist Carol Winner told HuffPost. “Pragmatically, they are on the body part furthest from our face, and we do know that the greatest risk of transmission is person to person, not shoe to person.”

Shoes track in a variety of bacteria from the soles of your shoes, so many experts suggest leaving your shoes at the door or entryway as good practice at any time. United Health Services recommends taking off any clothing you’ve worn outside as soon as you get home to minimize any chance of spreading COVID-19. These clothing can be washed with the rest of your laundry, and if you and others in your household are healthy, you can maintain your regular laundry schedule.

How to Prevent Getting COVID-19

While it’s unlikely you’ll be infected with COVID-19 by touching a contaminated surface, it’s still important to take precautions to protect yourself, especially when you come into contact with high-touch surfaces like a subway pole or a grocery cart handle.

The CDC recommends some simple safety advice to reduce your risk of COVID-19 infection, including:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds each time
  • Use hand sanitizer when hand-washing isn’t available
  • Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Practice social distancing and stay at least 6 feet away from other people
  • Stay home if you’re feeling sick
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces used frequently every day (and don’t forget areas like hampers)

“As far as we know right now, people are much more likely to be infected by close contact with an infected person than by touching a contaminated surface,” Julia Marcus, Ph.D,, MPH, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, told the Guardian. She added:

That said, it’s still important to be conscious of what we’re touching, especially high-touch surfaces, and be careful about cleaning our hands after touching things. For example, public transit or grocery stores and places where there tend to be a lot of people.

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