How to Protect Yourself From Coronavirus

Basic infection control practices can help keep you safe

hand washing iStock-815610386

Most states have now issued orders for everyone other than essential workers to stay home except in a few instances, such as to buy groceries or seek necessary medical care. When people do go out, health officials advise staying away from others, or social distancing. The goal is to slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Along with social distancing, the steps you’d take to protect yourself from colds and the flu will also help reduce your risk of contracting the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19), according to Jesse Goodman, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Georgetown University.

Here, some of the most important steps to take to stay safe.

Stay Home

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the White House recommend staying home as much as possible. Around the country, cities and states are implementing social distancing measures by closing restaurants and other businesses, requiring telecommuting where possible, and moving schools to distance learning plans. Follow any instructions and recommendations from your local health officials.

The idea behind social distancing is to reduce the chances that the virus will spread. According to the CDC, respiratory viruses are most often transmitted between people who are less than 6 feet apart, so keep that in mind when you need to go outside to buy supplies or do solo exercise.

This is especially important for people at high risk of serious illness due to COVID-19, including those 60 and older and anyone with a chronic medical condition like diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease.

If you’re sick, you should avoid going out even for groceries, according to the White House guidelines. Leave your house only if you need medical care. (It’s a good idea to have groceries on hand for a couple of weeks in case you get sick for this reason.)

And in general, “you should try to avoid people who may be coughing, sneezing, or ill,” says Goodman. While evidence shows that people can spread the coronavirus before they show symptoms, something like a cough can disperse the virus farther into the air. (If you have to cough or sneeze, be sure to use a tissue, or cough into the crook of your elbow—and clean your hands right after.)

Seriously, Wash Your Hands

There’s a good reason the admonition to wash your hands is so frequently repeated. Hand-washing is critical in stopping the spread of respiratory viruses and other bugs, and it’s one of several measures the CDC recommends for reducing your risk of COVID-19, the flu, and more.

More on the Coronavirus

When should you wash your hands? At a minimum, do so after you use the bathroom, before you eat, and after you blow your nose, cough, or sneeze, according to the CDC.

It’s also important to use the proper technique. That means not just rinsing your hands for a few seconds, Goodman says. Use soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds.

At home, it’s a good idea to regularly clean frequently touched surfaces, like doorknobs, handles, and counters.

Keep Sanitizer Handy

If you’re in a situation where you need to wash your hands but aren’t able to get to a sink—such as after you pump gas or touch a door to exit your apartment building—an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol is your next best option.

With the flu still circulating widely in many states, cleaning your hands after being in crowded spaces or after touching surfaces in public areas makes sense, Goodman says, and “hand sanitizer is a good, portable way to meet that need.”

Along with washing or cleaning your hands, try to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

“Sometimes you can arbitrarily pick up germs in between hand hygiene cleaning, so it’s key to try to keep your hands away from your face and eyes,” says Connie Steed, M.S.N., R.N., president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC). That’s how viruses can get from your hands into your system, making you sick.

Wear a Face Covering

Along with practicing social distancing and frequent hand-washing, the CDC now recommends that nearly everyone wear a cloth face covering when out in public. (Medical masks should generally be reserved for healthcare workers, who desperately need them when caring for highly infectious patients at close range.)

While handmade face coverings aren't very effective at protecting the wearer, they can help protect others. That's important because mounting evidence shows that people can spread the virus even before they feel sick. Asymptomatic transmission could be slowed if more people covered their mouth and nose when in public.

Those who are sick or caring for people who have COVID-19 should wear medical masks if they're available and other face coverings if they're not.

Health officials have emphasized that wearing a mask isn't a substitute for staying home as much as possible and practicing social distancing. (See our article for more about masks.)

Editor's Note: This article, originally published Feb. 27., has been updated to include the latest information about coronavirus protection.

Catherine Roberts

As a science journalist, my goal is to empower consumers to make informed decisions about health products, practices, and treatments. I aim to investigate what works, what doesn't, and what may be causing actual harm when it comes to people's health. As a civilian, my passions include science fiction, running, Queens, and my cat. Follow me on Twitter: @catharob