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With COVID-19 now spreading in the U.S., you’ve 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 throughout the day.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, appears to spread primarily when people cough or sneeze and respiratory droplets land on those nearby. But most experts say that taking simple precautions when touching public surfaces may indeed help to prevent the spread of disease.

Here’s what you need to know to keep yourself safe. 

Why 'High-Touch' Surfaces Can Be Risky

“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 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 yet 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,” suggests Hoffmann.

Grab a tissue. “Carry a pack of single-use tissues,” Hoffman suggests. “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.)