The virus that causes COVID-19 primarily spreads through close, person-to-person contact, not through surface contamination. However, the virus can live on surfaces and the amount of time that SARS-CoV-2 can survive on a surface depends on the material of the surface.
According to a recent study published in the Virology Journal, depending on the temperature, COVID-19 survived on different surfaces from a few hours to several days, with a half-life (time taken for 50% of the virus to no longer be infectious) of up to 2.7 days. The virus remained infectious on stainless steel, polymer and paper notes, glass, cotton and vinyl for much longer at 20°C as compared to 40°C.
In practice, the amount of the virus on a surface usually drops dramatically in the first few hours. It is also important to note that even though some of the living virus might still be detected on a surface after several hours or days, it might not be present in a large enough quantity to make someone sick. The recent findings, however, suggest that the virus can remain infectious for longer periods of time than considered earlier, especially at lower temperatures.
If a person touches a contaminated surface with traces of the virus and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth, they could become infected if the surface contains large amounts of the virus. This is why it is important to clean and disinfect any surfaces that people might come into contact with, especially those like doorknobs, cell phones, light switches, handles, countertops, sinks, toilets, and more. If possible, people should try to avoid touching high-contact surfaces in public. Washing your hands for 20 seconds, avoiding touching your face, maintaining six feet (two meters) of distance and wearing a mask are key steps in combatting the spread of the virus.
The current science suggests that people most commonly become infected with COVID-19 through close contact with another infected person, even if the infected person is not showing symptoms. Close contact is when people are within about 6 feet (2 meters), and the infected person spreads the virus by coughing, sneezing, talking, or breathing into the close space.
Even though the current science suggests that COVID-19 spreads most often through close personal contact, the public health community is continually learning about other ways that COVID-19 spreads. A major idea put forward is that COVID-19 could be spread from one person to another if the virus remains alive on surfaces like packages, food, plastic, or metals for long amounts of time, and that people touch their faces after having touched these surfaces. Multiple studies have analyzed how long the virus survives on different surfaces, and this evidence will continue to add to the understanding of the virus and how it is spread. This new evidence allows scientists to better understand whether or not people are likely to become infected by touching items in a market, collecting their mail or packages, or by contact with other surfaces in shared spaces (i.e. a table at a restaurant, a chair in an office) and public places (i.e. a bench at the park).
We base our COVID-19 expert contextualizations on information provided by internationally-recognized health organizations, public health researchers and infectious disease experts. Because information in epidemics is constantly being updated, our content is up to date based on the date and time they are published. If you’re looking for medical advice, please contact a healthcare provider, and be sure to review the World Health Organization website for more information about COVID-19.