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What everyone should know about viruses

What everyone should know about viruses

There are nearly a thousand different types of viruses and they are the most common cause of infectious disease spread among humans. Lung and stomach viruses spread particularly quickly and have the potential to cause considerable impact. Since the recent spread of COVID-19, viruses have come to the forefront of public attention impacting changes in our everyday hygiene routines. They seem like pretty scary facts right? The thing is, they don’t have to be.

How do viruses spread?

Viruses are a part of our life but by understanding how they spread, we can understand how to prevent infection. No virus is an island – they need a host (like a human) to survive and multiply. I know it’s gross to think about, but how do these sneaky little viruses find a human host? Well there are a few ways: breathed in through the air, through direct person-to-person contact, transmission due to poor sanitation, and indirect contact transmission (touching an infected surface then touching your face). Hands are well recognized to transfer viruses and many studies show that hand contact with infected hard surfaces is a significant cause of spreading infection. The risk of transmitting a virus from a hard surface depends on the length of time it can survive on that surface. Viruses usually live longer on hard surfaces (such as metal and plastic) than on fabrics and they love places like handles and tables. It is thought that this is due to the porous nature of fabrics which dry quickly. Have you ever thought why you get more colds and bugs in the winter? It’s because viruses tend to live longer in cool temperatures and low levels of sunlight. To sum it up, viruses like to hang out in low temperatures, high humidity and hard surfaces like stainless steel—making a bathroom faucet the perfect home for a virus (yuck!).

How long do viruses survive on hard surfaces?

So, the question on many of our minds right now is how long can SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, survive and be transmitted from hard surfaces? Although not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that SARS-CoV-2 can be spread by touching a surface with the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or potentially eyes. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reports that SARS-CoV-2 can remain stable for up to three hours suspended in the air depending on the environmental conditions. I must admit, when I first read that fact it seemed way longer than I expected. I always pictured that germs disappear fairly quickly in the air after coughing. However, the interesting facts continue… Researchers discovered that the virus is stable for about four hours on copper surfaces, up to twenty-four hours on cardboard, and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel. Three days!! It certainly seems that stainless steel is a favorite vacation spot of viruses.

Of course COVID-19 is just one of nearly a thousand viruses. Let’s talk about some others for a minute. Studies show that contagions such as norovirus, rotavirus, and herpes simplex virus survive on hard surfaces for a significant amount of time. Norovirus, a particularly contagious stomach flu, can survive on objects and surfaces for days or weeks continuing to cause infection. Rotavirus, which causes severe diarrhea, can survive on non-disinfected surfaces for a number of weeks. Published in the Journal of Hospital Infection, a recent study highlighted that other human coronaviruses remain infectious on hard surfaces for up to nine days. Don’t worry, it’s not all bad news, this is something that you can help control. The key is to understand hygiene methods in order to prevent the spread of viruses.


Hand contact with infected hard surfaces can spread viruses.

We know that viruses can spread by our hands touching infected surfaces. However, the virus doesn’t enter the body through the skin, but rather, our hands transport the virus to the mucus membranes in our nose, mouth or eyes.  Do people actually touch their face that often? A study from the American Journal of Infection Control describes that people touch their face with their own hands on average 23 times per hour. This means you probably touch your face around 200 times a day! Now you can’t help but realize when you touch your face right? With this being a route of infection, it might seem like an easy win, but nothing is more important than handwashing. Improved handwashing and cleaning of hard surfaces has been shown to stop the transmission of viruses via hands and surfaces. To put it simply, in preventing the spread of viruses, washing your hands wins hands down!

Keep fomites clean.

When learning about the spread of viruses I learnt about fomites. Everyday objects that carry germs and viruses are known as fomites in the world of epidemiology. Although easy enough to keep clean in your own house, it is not always that simple to ensure the cleanliness of fomites outside of your home environment. In fact, four of the most common places to harbor viruses and germs are fomites such as door knobs, toilet flush handles, sink faucet handles, and shared electronic devices. It’s pretty gross when you think about it right? Which is why you want to disinfect those fomites and keep them clean.

Protect yourself from viruses.

Don’t worry, research tells us that transferring a virus from a surface via the hands and face is a risk—but a preventable risk. The preventative measures might seem pretty basic, but they include: handwashing after using the bathroom, handwashing during/after food preparation, handwashing after touching shared/public surfaces, not touching your face, and disinfecting hard surfaces. Can you see a theme emerging? Hand washing, hand washing, hand washing! For effective handwashing, soap and water combined with a thorough handwashing technique for at least 20 seconds is advised. However, if soap and water is not available use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. You can clean surfaces with soap and water but this will only reduce the number of germs and dirt on the surface, not directly kill them. To make sure you kill those nasty germs and viruses, routinely clean hard surfaces with household disinfectant. In particular, targeting common fomites such as door knobs, switches, tables, kitchen countertops, shared electronic devices, toilets/toilet handles, faucets, and sinks is recommended.

Should you wear gloves?

When it comes to viruses the experts say that gloves are only really useful in a healthcare setting. In fact, when used every day, gloves can do more harm than good. There is some talk that viruses can stick to a latex glove better than your skin. To use gloves safely, wash or sanitize your hands prior to putting on them on and after taking them off. If they become dirty or torn, they must be changed. If you sneeze, cough or touch your face, eyes, nose or mouth, they must be changed. Disposable gloves should be put in the bin and not used again once removed. Reusable gloves must be safely removed, cleaned and disinfected after each use.

There’s a lot to remember, right? So what are the top tips to prevent the spread of viruses?

  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water. A great way to ensure you are washing them for long enough is to sing Happy Birthday twice over or the ABC song.
  • If you cannot wash your hands, use a hand sanitizer made with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Use a guard like No Knob to avoid touching germ-filled, shared surfaces.
  • Sneeze and cough into your bent elbow to avoid spreading viruses to surfaces.
  • Disinfect fomites!
  • If you are in a situation where you need to wear gloves, then follow the guidelines above to ensure you are using them safely.


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