The word aerosol may call to mind hairspray or asthma medicine. But more recently, it’s come up in headlines about coronavirus.
At least one new study has found evidence that coronavirus can be aerosolized. That means that in certain circumstances, it may survive in particles small and light enough to travel through the air. Some people have also wondered if the virus could be transmitted through pools, spas or drinking water.
Right now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) don’t believe airborne or waterborne transmission plays a role in how COVID-19 spreads through a community.
Most cases of COVID-19 are likely linked to person-to-person contact. Experts at the CDC and WHO emphasize that measures like social distancing and hand-washing are still some of the best ways to protect yourself and help slow the spread of coronavirus.
How Coronavirus Spreads: What We Know
Because this strain of coronavirus is so new, scientists are still working to understand exactly how it passes from person to person, according to the CDC. As of right now, research suggests coronavirus spreads primarily through respiratory droplets, which are relatively large particles.
A person who has COVID-19 produces these droplets by coughing, sneezing, speaking or breathing out. If you’re standing nearby, the droplets might land in your nose or mouth, or inhale them into your lungs, which would infect you with the virus.
That’s why social distancing matters so much. These droplets can travel about 6 feet, the CDC explains. It’s safest to stay home as often as you can, but when you do go out, aim to stay at least 6 feet away from other people, and wear a homemade cloth face covering.
Droplets can also land on whatever’s nearby. The virus can live for hours or even days on some surfaces. If you touch these objects or surfaces, then touch your face, you can get sick. So, it’s important to practice not touching your face, eyes, nose and mouth.
To keep yourself and other people safe, avoid touching surfaces in public places. Washing your hands frequently with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (with 60% alcohol) can also reduce your risk of transmission through contact with a contaminated object. You should regularly clean surfaces you frequently touch in your home, too, such as tables, doorknobs and light switches, the CDC recommends.
Scientists Continue to Study the Transmission of COVID-19
Other viruses — including the seasonal flu — may travel short distances through the air. In addition, diseases like Legionnaires’ disease can spread through humidifiers, air conditioning and water systems, and even whirlpool spas, according to the WHO.
However, Legionnaires’ disease is caused by bacteria, not a virus. And even viruses in the same family as COVID-19, such as other coronaviruses, have important differences. So, researchers continue to study exactly how this new strain of coronavirus moves through the population.
Can COVID-19 Spread Through the Air?
Thus far, most of the research on how coronavirus spreads points to close person-to-person contact, not airborne transmission. According to the WHO, researchers looked at 75,000 cases of this strain of coronavirus in China. They found no evidence that any of the cases occurred because the virus traveled through the air.
And while one new study suggests small bits of live virus can live in the air for up to three hours, it didn’t test whether that could make someone sick. The WHO points out that in this case, the aerosol was generated in a lab using a high-powered machine — not by a human cough. Meanwhile, other studies have found no contamination lingering in the air in real-world situations, even in the hospital rooms of infected patients.
Can COVID-19 Spread Through Water?
The CDC reports that coronavirus hasn’t been detected in drinking water. The same types of treatment methods that filter and disinfect water from other causes of disease would likely remove or inactivate coronavirus.
Similarly, there’s no evidence that you can catch COVID-19 through pools, hot tubs, spas or water parks. However, it’s best to follow social distancing guidelines to stay home as much as possible and avoid public places. But if you have your own pool or spa, chlorine and other types of chemicals used to clean and disinfect should work against coronavirus, as well.
Social Distancing Remains Essential to Stay Safe From COVID-19
Even if the virus can travel via particles smaller than droplets, it’s unlikely to transmit COVID-19 over long distances, according to the CDC. So, social distancing — also referred to as physical distancing — remains one of the best ways to both protect yourself and stop the spread of the virus through your community.
How to Practice Social Distancing
Essentially, social distancing practice means limiting face-to-face contact with other people and allowing space between you and anyone who doesn’t live in your house. To practice this critically important behavior, the CDC recommends:
- Avoiding going out, even for essentials — use mail-order pharmacies and delivery services when possible
- If you must go out to a grocery store or pharmacy, leaving at least 6 feet between yourself and others
- Not gathering in groups and steering clear of crowded places and mass gatherings
- Not using public transportation, ridesharing or taxis
- Working from home if you can
Good Hygiene Habits to Follow
You can also practice basic hand and respiratory hygiene to keep yourself and other people safe. This protects you from many pathogens, including coronavirus. Good hygiene habits include:
- Covering your mouth and nose with the inside of your elbow, or a tissue, when you cough or sneeze
- Throwing away used tissues immediately
- Then, washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer
Homemade Face Coverings Can Add a Layer of Protection
The latest evidence suggests some people may be able to spread coronavirus even before they have symptoms. That’s why the CDC recently updated its guidelines to encourage everyone to wear homemade cloth face coverings in public, especially in places like the grocery store and pharmacy.
More advanced medical equipment — including surgical masks or N95 respirators — should be reserved for health care workers who are caring for people with COVID-19. However, making a face mask with materials like a scarf, T-shirt or even a coffee filter can help keep people who have the virus but don’t know it yet from spreading it.
To make and use a cloth face covering effectively:
- Include multiple layers of fabric
- Make sure it fits snugly but comfortably
- Secure it with ties or ear loops
- Remove it carefully, without touching your eyes, nose or mouth, then wash your hands immediately
- Wash it regularly in the washing machine
Don’t use face coverings on children younger than age 2, or on anyone who has trouble breathing. And keep in mind, face masks aren’t a substitute for social distancing. They should be used in combination with other methods to help slow the spread of the virus, the CDC recommends.
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