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How the coronavirus spreads

A woman sneezes into her elbow.

COVID-19 is a new disease, and there is still a great deal we don't know about it. But we are learning new information almost every day.

One of the most important things to know about COVID-19 is how it spreads. That's one of the keys to containing it. Here's what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found so far.

Cover those coughs

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is called SARS-CoV-2. It appears to spread mainly from person to person. It may pass from an infected person through the droplets they breathe out when they cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land on people who are nearby and possibly be inhaled into their lungs. That's why people are urged to keep a distance of at least 6 feet from one another and to cover coughs and sneezes with a cloth face mask, tissue or elbow.

This is the main way the virus is believed to spread. But there may be others. One is through contact with surfaces contaminated by live virus.

The droplets that an infected person coughs or sneezes into the air can land on any surface—such as a table, a keyboard or a doorknob. CDC says it is possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching an object that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes.

That's why people are urged to clean and disinfect shared surfaces daily.

To get rid of the coronavirus on common surfaces, you can make your own cleanser using bleach. First, make sure that your bleach contains 5% to 6% of sodium hypochlorite. Also check that it hasn't expired. Then follow either of these recipes:

  • Mix 5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) of bleach with 1 gallon of water.
  • Mix 4 teaspoons of bleach with 1 quart of water.

Be sure you never mix household bleach with ammonia or any other cleanser. That can create toxic fumes.

What about silent spreaders?

CDC experts now believe that a significant number of people who are infected with SARS-CoV-2 may show no symptoms. That means you can't rely on warning signs like a fever, cough or shortness of breath to alert you that you're contagious. It is possible to spread the virus even when you feel fine. Keeping your distance from other people — at least 6 feet away outside your home — can help protect everyone. 

It's also important to:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Wear a cloth face mask if you leave your home.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Then throw it out.
  • Wash your hands often. Use soap and water and wash for at least 20 seconds.
  • Avoid touching your face between handwashings.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces you share with others often.

Visit our Coronavirus health topic center for more tips on coping with the pandemic.

Reviewed 9/10/2020

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