A person uses a keypad with numbers

From the moment COVID-19 started spreading in the U.S., you probably heard recommendations to wash your hands after contact with what are called high-touch surfaces: elevator buttons, public faucets, handrails, doorknobs, shopping carts, ATM screens, gas pumps, checkout keypads, and many more otherwise mundane objects we encounter.

For people who aren't essential workers, it's been relatively easy to avoid most of those surfaces by following the government's mandates to simply stay home. But with some people heading back to work, it's important to remember that—along with practicing social distancing and wearing a mask—being careful about the surfaces you touch and washing your hands frequently and thoroughly can help keep you safe.

Here’s what you need to know.

Why High-Touch Surfaces Can Be Risky

COVID-19 spreads primarily through the droplets people emit when they cough, sneeze, talk, sing, or exhale. Those droplets can land on anyone nearby, which is why social distancing is so important. But they can also land on surfaces or be transferred there when someone who's sick touches his hand to his face and then uses that hand to turn on a faucet, for example. 

“Surface areas in general are reservoirs for viruses, bacteria, and other germs,” says Manish Trivedi, M.D., director of the division of infectious diseases and chairman of infection prevention and control at the AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in New Jersey. “When you sneeze into the environment, the respiratory particles can land on surfaces such as a doorknob or table.”

More on the Coronavirus

Public health officials don’t have exact answers on how long the novel coronavirus can live on a given surface. But research suggests it may survive for hours or even days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That can depend on conditions such as sunlight and temperature, says Karen Hoffmann, R.N., an infection prevention specialist at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine in Chapel Hill and immediate past president of the Association of Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

Simply touching a contaminated surface won’t give you COVID-19. But then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes can transfer the virus to those sensitive spots, allowing the virus to enter the body and cause infection, Trivedi explains.

The CDC says most coronavirus infections occur when people are directly exposed to droplets in coughs or sneezes. Still, “it’s reasonable to think there could be at least a potential risk from touching contaminated surfaces,” says Amesh Adalja, M.D., an infectious disease physician, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Certain surfaces are riskier than others. Objects that we frequently touch with bare hands, such as countertops, tables, doorknobs, and handrails, are of greater concern than chairs or other surfaces that we're in contact with through clothing, says Hoffmann.

Practical Tips to Stay Safe

Practice good hand hygiene and minimize how often you touch your face. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol before touching your face or eating, Trivedi recommends. When using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, make sure to rub it in until your hands are completely dry, Hoffmann adds.

Avoid touching surfaces with fingertips. Your fingertips are the part of your hand most likely to transmit a virus, because they’re the part most often used to touch your nose or mouth. “Instead of a finger, use an object such as a pen, or even your knuckle, to press an elevator button. Open doors with an elbow or the back of a hand,” Hoffmann suggests.

Grab a tissue. “Carry a pack of single-use tissues,” Hoffman says. “You can use these to open a door or grab a handrail.”

Clean your hands before touching your smartphone. Mobile phones may not be public surfaces, but studies have shown that they too can harbor bacteria, viruses, and other germs. (Read how to clean your phone screen without damaging it.)