You’re Most Likely To Contract Novel Coronavirus From An Infected Person’s Cough Or Sneeze

Jessica Migala
Women's Health
Photo credit: Chalongrat Chuvaree / EyeEm - Getty Images
Photo credit: Chalongrat Chuvaree / EyeEm - Getty Images

From Women's Health

A *lot* is happening right now with novel coronavirus (COVID-19), and you're likely hearing new updates throughout the day. There are more than 1,500 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., according to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And it's totally understandable if you have endless questions about the new virus, including how you or someone you love could contract it.

First off, it might help put your mind at ease to know that most cases are mild, and the majority of people who contract novel coronavirus do fully recover. Of the 44,672 coronavirus cases that were confirmed in China by February 11 (there are now 80,991), more than 36,000 (81 percent) of those cases were mild, a recent study published by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention found. This study is the largest conducted to date on the novel coronavirus, and the researchers specifically defined “mild” as cases that didn’t involve pneumonia or involved only mild pneumonia.

So, for the majority of people, COVID-19 produces cold- or flu-like symptoms, and you can bounce back just fine. For those in at-risk groups, like the immunocompromised (aka people with chronic conditions like diabetes or heart or lung disease) and the elderly, COVID-19 may require hospitalization and can be deadly.

Because it's a novel virus, scientists are continually learning about how COVID-19 gets around to more and more people. That said, “we have a pretty good idea of how [this virus] spreads,” says Michael Lin, MD, MPH, associate professor in the division of infectious diseases at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “It spreads via droplet and contact transmission," he explains. "In other words: being coughed on by a sick person or touching a surface contaminated with the virus."

Still, there are a lot of misconceptions about how this virus spreads, and people are Googling alllll sorts of questions about it. So, here are answers to six popular Qs about COVID-19 transmission. Knowing what you can—and can't!—get novel coronavirus from can go a long way in keeping you safe, healthy, and worry-free.

Q: Can you get coronavirus from direct contact?

A: Yes. Here’s what that means: “The virus is in high concentration in body secretions like nasal mucous and saliva,” says Dr. Lin. So if someone coughs or sneezes into their hand (a very common habit!) and then touches your hand (and then you touch your nose, mouth, or eyes), that can transmit the virus to you. (The same goes for viruses that cause the common cold and flu, by the way.) The same can happen if they sneeze or cough around you or, eek, on you.

The CDC is telling folks to practice social distancing, which means staying six feet away from other people. That’s not always possible, of course, but ideally you're definitely staying six feet away from those who are visibly ill (coughing, sneezing, displaying a runny nose, etc.). Also, now’s the time to avoid shaking hands or kissing someone on the cheek, reminds Dr. Lin. Bring on the friendly wave or nod.

Q: What about touching stuff? How long does novel coronavirus live on surfaces?

A: It's thought that the new coronavirus can live on surfaces, but the answer is still not totally clear. There are mixed reports about what types of surfaces it can live on (e.g., stainless steal, plastic, glass), as well as for how long on each type of surface. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that it can live on some surfaces for anywhere from a few hours to several days, but the reality is that “this is still an evolving science,” says Dr. Lin.

The CDC states: "It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object ... but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads." Still, you want to be extra cautious about handling common-touch objects, like railings, elevator buttons, and door handles.

Q: Can you get COVID-19 from touching mail and packages?

A: The answer is similar to the one above—researchers still aren't sure if (and for how long) the virus can survive on and be picked up from mailing materials, like paper and cardboard. According to the CDC, "because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures." And yes, that includes packages coming from areas where there are novel coronavirus outbreaks.

Q: Can you get coronavirus from poop or farts?

A: Yup, people are searching this Q! While the most often-cited symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough, and shortness of breath, some people also have abdominal discomfort and diarrhea before the cough comes on, according to a series of new research in Gastroenterology. Scientists also say that the virus is shed in the stool, which means that there’s potential for fecal-oral transmission.

Basically, this means it might be possible to contract it through food or water that's been contaminated by fecal matter. But more still has to be learned here, and Dr. Lin says that sneezing, coughing, and touching shared surfaces are likely the main sources of spread.

Q: Can you get coronavirus from fabric/clothes/carpet?

A: It's unclear at this point whether coronavirus can live on soft materials like fabric, clothing, towels, and carpet—and for how long if that is the case. Again, you can't totally avoid fabrics, so the best way to protect yourself is to frequently wash your hands and avoid touching your face.

Q: Can you get coronavirus from dogs and cats?

A: Currently, it doesn't look as if pets like dogs and cats can pass the virus to humans, according to the WHO. The new coronavirus is primarily spread through human-to-human coughing and sneezing. Still, there have been some rare cases of pets testing positive for the virus, but experts believe that it's unlikely it would spread back to a human from a pet.

Regardless of how the virus spreads, you should still practice the same prevention habits.

Washing your hands and not touching your face are your best defenses, no matter who you come into contact with or what you happen to touch. The CDC gives a fantastic primer here, and if you want a visual check out this YouTube video of Mayo Clinic’s Gregory Poland, MD, in which he demonstrated the proper way to wash on Jimmy Kimmel Live! a few years back.

Using a 60 percent alcohol-based hand sanitizer is another great way to rid your own hands of germs and prevent their spread, though they are next to impossible to find right now. But rest assured, soap and water is effective.

The bottom line: The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus and prevent the spread is to wash your hands, avoid touching your face, cover your coughs and sneezes, keep a distance from people in public, and stay home if you’re ill.

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