30th November, 20217 min read

How long do viruses and bacteria live on surfaces?

Medical reviewer:
Dr Ann Nainan
Dr Ann Nainan
Author:
Jennifer Co
Jennifer Co
Last reviewed: 12/05/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us change our hygiene practices. We’re washing our hands more often and we’re more aware of how germs are spread, and how we can stop them from spreading.

Many of us have also started cleaning our household surfaces more regularly. So, you may be wondering how long viruses and bacteria can live on these surfaces.

Read on to learn about the different types of germs that can make us ill, how long they can live on surfaces, and what you can do to avoid them.

Cold viruses

If you catch a cold, it’s usually because your hands have come into contact with the nasal fluid (secretions) from someone who’s infected with the cold virus.

This includes touching surfaces that are contaminated with a person’s germs: the virus then stays on your hands and can get into your body if you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.

Cold viruses can live on your hands and other surfaces like cups and plates, cutlery, door handles, keyboards, phones, and worktops for up to 24 hours.

Flu virus

Flu (influenza) is a viral infection that you can catch by breathing in droplets from an infected person after they sneeze, cough, or talk.

Like with a cold, you can also get flu from direct contact with an infected person’s nasal secretions, or by touching objects or surfaces that have been contaminated with the virus.

The flu virus can live on all surfaces in your home (including door knobs, tabletops, toilet flush handles, keyboards, phones and soft furnishings), for up to 48 hours, so it’s important to clean these surfaces regularly to stop the spread of flu. It can also live on hands for up to 24 hours, so washing your hands frequently with soap and warm water will also stop the spread.

COVID-19 virus

It's thought that, like other coronaviruses, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is mainly spread through droplets released when an infected person sneezes, coughs or breathes out. If you breathe in these droplets, or they come into contact with your eyes or mouth, you could catch the virus.

If droplets land on something, the coronavirus might be able to survive for a few days on hard surfaces, such as tables and door handles. You could then be infected by touching the surface before touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, but experts say transmission is less likely via contact with surfaces than breathing in droplets.

Coronavirus can live on indoor surfaces for a few days, but after three days there will be a 99% reduction in survival – so minimal risk of catching Covid via contact with surfaces.

Streptococcal bacteria

Streptococcal infections are caused by a group of bacteria called Streptococcus (‘strep’).

They’re usually spread from one person to another directly: if you breathe in droplets released when another person sneezes or coughs, touch someone who has the bacteria on their skin, or come into contact with an infected wound or skin sore.

Some studies suggest that certain species of Streptococcus can survive for long periods on surfaces, but there’s a lack of evidence about how long they can last.

Stomach viruses and bacteria

Viruses, such as the norovirus, are common causes of stomach bugs (gastroenteritis). Norovirus can last for weeks on surfaces like lift buttons and doorknobs.

Bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter can also cause food poisoning.

E. coli is usually spread through contaminated food or water, or contact with infected animals, but it can survive on surfaces like cooking utensils for several months.

MRSA

MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is a type of bacteria that’s resistant to many types of antibiotics. It is spread through contact with infected people or contaminated objects.

MRSA can live on dry surfaces including furniture, and gym equipment for months.

Someone washing a tomato before eating

How to avoid getting ill from germs on surfaces

There are some general steps you can take every day to help you avoid becoming ill through germs:

  1. Avoid close contact with people who are unwell with an infectious illness. Read more about how long you’re infectious after a viral infection.
  2. Wash your hands often, using soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitiser.
  3. Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
  4. Keep your surroundings clean by using common household products to disinfect surfaces.
  5. Norovirus (the winter vomiting bug) is the most contagious virus, because you shed billions of virus particles when you’re infected. Although you are most infectious in the first few days, you can still be contagious after 2 weeks. Experts suggest disinfecting surfaces or objects that could be contaminated with a bleach-based household cleaner, washing bedding at 60 degrees, flushing away vomit/ faeces, and washing hands thoroughly after going to the toilet, before preparing food or touching contaminated surfaces.
  6. Flu virus: Flu is also very infectious and you're most likely to pass it on to someone else within five days. However, flu viruses are relatively fragile so standard cleaning and disinfecting are sufficient to kill them off. Disinfectant wipes can be used for frequently touched objects such as phones, keyboards, and door handles.
  7. Coronavirus: Although you can catch coronavirus from surfaces, experts say this isn’t the main way it is transmitted. Cleaning with household cleaners is generally sufficient unless someone in your household or who has visited your household has tested positive or is ill with coronavirus , in which case you should use disinfectants.

Your health questions answered

Can germs live on clothing?

Germs can get onto clothing from our own bodies, if our clothing touches contaminated objects or food, or from other people. How long they live on clothing depends on the type of germ. Underwear is more likely to have germs on it, as it can carry germs from poo (faeces).

How long do flu germs live on hands?

There’s not much evidence about how long flu germs can live on hands, but one study found that they only live for a few minutes. Most experts think flu spreads mainly through droplets released when infected people cough, sneeze or talk, which then get into the noses or mouths of people nearby. You should wash your hands with soap and water or use alcohol-based sanitiser to help stop the spread of germs.

How long does the flu virus live in the body?

Up to about 11 days. It usually takes about 2 days from picking up the flu to having symptoms, but can take 1 to 4 days. This is called the incubation period. Generally, you can spread the flu (you’re contagious) from 3 to 4 days before you have symptoms. Then you’re usually contagious for 5 to 7 days after first having symptoms.

Key takeaways

  • you can become ill if you touch objects and surfaces that are contaminated with viruses or bacteria, then touch your eyes, nose or mouth
  • some viruses and bacteria can live on surfaces just for a few hours or a day, while others can survive for a few weeks or even months
  • washing your hands properly and often can reduce the spread of germs from contaminated surfaces
  • disinfecting household surfaces can also stop the spread of germs that can make you ill
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