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Here’s How Long the Coronavirus Lasts on Surfaces (So Clean Frequently)

A man gripping a subway pole with his bare hand.

Worried about the coronavirus on contaminated surfaces? Here’s the newest research on how long it lasts and a variety of surfaces and what you can do about it.

The research, just published in the New England Journal of Medicine, compares the amount of time the coronavirus (formally, the SARS-CoV-2 virus) lasts in the air and on different surfaces and in relationship to the most closely related human coronavirus to date, SARS (formally SARS-CoV-1).

Why compare the two? Because finding out the environmental viability of the new novel strain is very close to the environmental viability of the previous strain is a great way to confirm we should be using protocols for cleaning and disinfecting similar to those that we used with the 2002 SARS outbreak. The good news? While the new novel form does outlive the old form by a small margin on some surfaces, the viability of the two across tests is very consistent.

In the chart below, you can see the comparison between the viability and decay rate of the virus we are facing now (in red) and the virus we faced in 2002 (in blue).

Chart of virus viability and breakdown on different surfaces.
Doremalen/New England Journal of Medicine

You can check out the actual research here if you want to read the fine details, but we’re here to break down the chart above into practical information and tips.

Here is the estimated viability of the virus on a variety of surfaces you may routinely come in contact with, per the study. The hours expressed indicate how long the virus can live on the surface after contamination (though the total number does diminish over time within that window).

  • Plastic Surfaces: Up to 72 Hours.
  • Stainless Steel: Up to 72 Hours.
  • Cardboard: Up to 24 Hours.
  • Copper: Up to 4 hours.

The results certainly align with expectations. Plastic surfaces aren’t germicidal, and stainless steel has no particular germicidal properties (its extensive use in clinical settings is because it is cheap, durable, and easy to clean). Cardboard is dry and, therefore, more inhospitable to germs, and copper is a well known germicidal compound (studies on copper and brass door handles show that germs live short and unhappy lives on them).

So what does that mean for you? It means that you can continue to remain calm about overseas packages as the viability of the virus over a long international shipment is virtually nonexistent.

It also means that, realistically, unless the UPS driver or mailperson is ill and coughing directly on your deliveries while they’re driving around and dropping them off, it’s improbable that you’re going to get the coronavirus from your mail or domestic packages.

At the same time, it’s prudent to set your mail or packages aside if you are concerned because, within a day of sitting in your garage or out of the way, they’ll have naturally killed off the virus. For things like bubble mailers from Amazon, you can also set them aside but exercise more caution as the plastic surface is more hospitable to contaminants than cardboard.

Or, as we suggested here, you can open the packages, immediately dispose of them outside in the trash, and thoroughly wash your hands. If you have gloves on hand, that would be a great idea too.

It also means you should be very proactive in both cleaning in your home (if you suspect anyone in your home is sick, it would be very wise to sanitize surfaces throughout the day to cut down on transmission) and when out and about. Surfaces like shopping cart handles, doorknobs, subway railings, playground equipment, and any of the myriad of non-copper surfaces we come in contact with every day should be treated as potentially contaminated.

Use sanitizing wipes liberally and wear gloves if you have them. Avoid touching anything in public you don’t need to touch and be sure to sanitize things that come into your home. If it’s something you cannot sanitize, simply place them out of the way for a few days to experience a natural viral die-off.

Jason Fitzpatrick Jason Fitzpatrick
Jason Fitzpatrick is the Editor in Chief of LifeSavvy. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at LifeSavvy, Review Geek, How-To Geek, and Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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