Where Does the Virus Live? Not on Your Hair, Clothes or Shoes
One Times article goes through the places that the virus likely exists and where it doesn’t—and reading this might put you at more ease.
If you’re worried about tracking the virus into your home from your clothes, your shoes, your hair or your mail—read below. Based on aerodynamics and the way respiratory viruses work, these are all unlikely places to contract the virus.
Experts provided some helpful insight to help individuals stress a little less about the virus and its threat. The New York Times article pulls information from infectious disease experts, aerosol scientists and microbiologists to answer reader questions about coming into contact with the virus during essential trips outside and from deliveries. Precautions are still necessary, but their answers are reassuring.
Do I need to change my clothes or shower after grocery shopping?
Experts agree that you need to wash your hands, but you don’t need to stress about the virus on your clothes or body. It’s true that a sneeze or cough from an infected person can propel viral droplets and smaller particles through the air, but most of them will drop to the ground.
Studies show that some viral particles could float in the air for about a half an hour, but they don’t swam like gnats and are unlikely to collide with your clothes.
“A droplet that is small enough to float in air for a while also is unlikely to deposit on clothing because of aerodynamics,” said Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech. “The droplets are small enough that they’ll move in the air around your body and clothing.”
Why do small droplets and viral particles usually land on our clothes?
If you’re wondering how that works, here’s a mini lesson in aerodynamics from Dr. Marr.
“The best way to describe it is that they follow the streamlines, or air flow, around a person, because we move relatively slowly. It’s kind of like small insects and dust particles flowing in the streamlines around a car at slow speed but potentially slamming into the windshield if the car is going fast enough,” said Dr. Marr.
“Humans don’t usually move fast enough for this to happen,” Dr. Marr continued. “As we move, we push air out of the way, and most of the droplets and particles get pushed out of the way, too. Someone would have to spray large droplets through talking — a spit talker — coughing or sneezing for them to land on our clothes. The droplets have to be large enough that they don’t follow the streamlines.”
While you still need to practice social distancing at the store, wear a face covering and wash your hands after you get home, changing clothes and showering when you get back is not necessary—based on physics.
Could the virus linger in my hair or beard?
According to the experts, the simple answer to this question is that it’s very unlikely. For all the reasons outlined already, the risk of contamination from a particle on your hair or beard presents a low risk of infection. The article states that even if someone sneezed on the back of your head, any droplets that landed on your hair would be an unlikely source of infection.
“You have to think through the process of what would have to happen for someone to become infected,” said Dr. Andrew Janowski, instructor of pediatric infectious diseases at Washington University School of Medicine St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “You have someone who sneezes, and they have to have X amount of virus in the sneeze. Then there has to be so many drops that land on you.”
“Then you have to touch that part of your hair or clothing that has those droplets, which already have a significant reduction in viral particles,” Dr. Janowski said. “Then you have to touch that, and then touch whatever part of your face, to come into contact with it. When you go through the string of events that must occur, such an extended number of things have to happen just right. That makes it a very low risk.”
Should I worry about doing laundry and sorting clothes? Can I shake viral particles loose from my clothes and send them into the air?
Experts say this depends on if you are doing routine laundry or cleaning up after a sick person, but in general, routine laundry presents a low risk.
Wash your laundry as you would normally. While some viruses, like the norovirus, can be tough to clean, the new coronavirus, like the flu virus, is surrounded by a fatty membrane that washes away with the help of soap. Washing your clothes in regular laundry detergent and using a dryer is more than enough.
“We do know that viruses can deposit on clothing (from droplets) and then be shaken loose into the air with movement, but you would need a lot of viruses for this to be a concern, far more than a typical person would encounter while going for a walk outdoors or going to a grocery store,” Dr. Marr said.
If you are in contact with a person who is sick, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you wear gloves when cleaning up after someone who is sick, and do not shake laundry or bedding. Use the warmest water setting possible and dry completely. “We know these types of viruses tend to decay faster on fabric than on hard, solid surfaces like steel or plastic,” said Dr. Marr.
How long can the virus remain on fabric and other surfaces?
The New England Journal of Medicine’s study has been an important study for experts and understanding how long the virus survives on various surfaces. It found that the virus can survive, under ideal conditions, up to three days on hard metal surfaces and plastic and up to 24 hours on cardboard.
The study did not look at fabric—but based on what researchers know about viruses on cardboard and fabric, they expect that the virus would survive on fabric very similarly to how it works on cardboard.
That being said, should I be concerned about the mail, packages or the newspaper?
Experts say that the risk of getting sick from handling mail or packages is extremely low and, at this point, only theoretical. There are no cases of someone getting sick from opening mail or reading the newspaper.
Still, you can take precautions like disposing of the packaging and washing your hands. If you still feel anxious about it, take the advice from the New England Journal study and just let mail and packages sit for 24 hours before handling them.
I’ve heard that after I get home, I should remove my shoes and wipe them down. Should I waste my disinfectant wipes on my shoes?
The articles notes that shoes can harbor bacteria and viruses, but that doesn’t mean they are a common source of infection.
There are many approaches to this question, but by and large, shoes should not be a main source of concern.
Studies have shown that shoes can track all kinds of gross stuff, and a recent study from China found that among health care workers, half had coronavirus detected on their shoes (which is not surprising after working with infected patients).
You can wash some shoes. You can wipe them down with disinfectant wipes—although that is not recommended since wipes are in short supply and that could put the virus in direct contact with your hand. You can make your household a shoe-free household, especially if you have a toddler who crawls or someone who is immune-compromised.
In general, though, shoes are not a big worry for contacting the virus.
Thanks to the Times article, people can be a little more at ease about tracking the virus into their homes. While you don’t need to worry about your clothes, hair, shoes or mail a lot, you still need to wash your hands, social distance and disinfect often.