- Sweat is unlikely to carry germs or transmit viruses.
- Viruses mainly spread through respiratory secretions like a cough or sneeze, and bodily fluids like mucus, saliva, or blood – but not sweat.
- However, If you’re close enough to transfer sweat, you’re probably also close enough to spread viruses through coughs, sneezes, or contact.
- This article was medically reviewed by Tania Elliott, MD, who specialises in infectious diseases related to allergies and immunology for internal medicine at NYU Langone Health.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Germs – like viruses and bacteria – often spread through sneezes and coughs, uncooked food, animals, and unwashed hands, according to the Cone Health Medical Group.
Even though our hands have sweat glands, medical experts say there is little evidence that sweat can transfer harmful germs. In fact, sweat produces natural antibiotics that protect our own bodies. Here’s what you need to know.
Sweat can kill germs on your own body
Sweating is the body’s natural response when your temperature gets too high. It leaves the skin through pores, or tiny openings in your skin, which allows your sweat to evaporate and cool you down. Sweat is mostly made from water, but it also contains ammonia, salts, and proteins, which are essentially waste products that your body gets rid of through your pores.
Sweat can also kill pathogens, which is a scientific term for microbes that cause disease. For example, dermcidin, produced when we sweat, is a type of antimicrobial peptide that can puncture the outer membranes of bacteria or viruses.
Scientists believe that sweat produces 1,700 types of natural antibiotics that can “rapidly and efficiently kill invaders” after an injury. These natural substances may also be more effective long-term than prescribed antibiotics, since bacteria and viruses can’t quickly develop an immunity to them.
Viruses are unlikely to be transmitted through sweat
Our bodies are filled with microbes, and our hands are particularly germy, says Joseph Comber, PhD, a biologist who studied immunology and microbial pathogenesis at Villanova University. And even though our hands have sweat glands, Comber says it’s unlikely that sweat can transfer disease-causing germs.
Comber notes that the early 2003 SARS-coronavirus, a virus similar to COVID-19, was found in the sweat glands of people who had died. But sweat was not how the virus spread – like COVID-19, these viruses mostly spread through respiratory secretions, such as the droplets from sneezes or coughs.
Overall, Comber says sweat won’t carry germs unless it passes over an open cut or infection, as the sweat could pick up the germs from the wound. Otherwise, “it’s really not something that has been demonstrated to be a major way that pathogens get transmitted,” says Comber.
According to an interview with infectious diseases expert Leong Hoe Nam, sweat transfer alone isn’t likely to spread illness. It’s only if sweat mixes with secretions from someone’s nose or throat – like a cough or sneeze or blood – that it could transmit a virus.
Viruses spread through coughs, sneezes, or contact
Many of the leading health organisations worldwide said that you should be more concerned about another person’s coughs or sneezes than their sweat during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For example, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention states that the coronavirus spreads through an infected person’s respiratory droplets from coughs or sneezes, or touching a surface they have also touched.
The World Health Organisation adds that you can get infected if you’ve come in contact with the coronavirus and touch your eyes, nose, or mouth as well as by breathing in an infected person’s breath.
So, while you shouldn’t worry about sweat on its own, it’s still important to socially distance by staying at least six feet away from other people. If you’re close enough to transfer sweat, you’re close enough to spread viruses through coughs, sneezes, or contact.
Related stories about sanitation and keeping clean:
- How do viruses spread and how to protect yourself against infection
- Does bleach kill germs? Yes, but you need to let it sit for 10 minutes
- Beards carry a host of bacteria – but not much more than clean-shaven skin
- What temperature kills germs? How to use heat properly to get rid of bacteria and viruses
- Does UV light kill germs? Getting an at-home sanitizer may be worth it
- Does alcohol kill germs? Yes, as long as the solution is strong enough
- Does vinegar kill germs? It isn’t the best disinfectant for viruses
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