- Studies suggest the novel coronavirus lives on cloth and fabric surfaces for up to two days.
- Experts say clothing is unlikely to be a major source of infection for the general public, since you’d still have to touch your clothes and then your face.
- But medics are taking extra precautions to clean their clothes after being in contact with COVID-19 patients – having outdoor and indoor shoes, and washing their hospital clothes separately.
- The best defence for the general public is to stay home whenever possible and wash your hands often.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
As efforts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus stretch into weeks and months, and wearing cloth masks in public becomes more commonplace, people are now starting to wonder about other possible sources of contagion, including their clothing.
Trending Google searches (how long the virus survives on clothing, and how to wash clothing to prevent contamination) suggest people are wary of whatever they have worn in public.
But while the virus is believed to survive for up to two days on fabric, experts still say you’re less likely to be infected by your clothing as by another person. However, if you still want to take precautions, simple hygiene habits can help, such as an immediate shower and change of clothes after venturing outdoors.
Here’s how medical experts advise you should decontaminate your clothing if you think it’s been exposed to coronavirus.
How two doctors decontaminate their clothes after a shift
Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, an emergency physician and clinical assistant professor at University of Tennessee, said the viral outbreak has changed her whole routine going in and out of the emergency room for work.
Previously, she would pack a bag with a reusable water bottle and anything else she’d want along for her shift. Now, it’s strictly the basics – ID card, stethoscope, pen, and cell phone.
“Every item can be a fomite, meaning it could carry the virus, so I’m trying to minimise what I bring with me to work,” Long Gillespie told Insider.
Once she’s done with work, she changes into a fresh set of scrubs at the hospital before heading home, where she leaves her shoes outside, changes out of her scrubs again and heads into the shower. Then, only after she’s washed and in a clean set of her own clothes, she rejoins her family.
Those precautions, or “firewalls” as she calls them, help give her peace of mind by separating her life into three zones – the contamination zone, with active patients at the ER; the clean zone of her house; and the transition area between the two.
To keep that clean zone clean, Long Gillespie said she leaves as many items as possible in that transition area by changing out of dirty scrubs at the hospital and leaving other work essentials there. Anything she does bring home is carefully disinfected or contained – the shoes she wears to work, for instance.
“My hospital shoes stay in a certain corner of the garage, and nothing else is near them,” she said.
Out of habit, Long Gillespie follows a similar routine when she makes grocery trips, removing her outer layers of clothing when she returns home and washing her hands thoroughly.
Dr. Lee Riley, professor and chair of the Division of Infectious Disease and Vaccinology at Berkeley Public Health, says his wife, a physician working in family medicine, has a similar routine now when she comes home after seeing patients. At the door, she immediately removes and washes her clothes.
After the clothes are in the washing machine, she washes her hands thoroughly. If the patient has respiratory symptoms, she also showers immediately. Riley and his wife also have a habit of leaving their shoes at the door when they come into the house – something he said is a good idea not only because of coronavirus but for general hygiene.
So far, the system has worked, and neither Riley nor his wife have developed COVID-19 symptoms. “I don’t know if we need to do that, but we do to be safe,” he told Insider.
For most people who aren’t in close contact with patients on a daily basis, clothing is unlikely to be a problem, and normal hygiene habits should be enough to prevent contagion.
“It’s not necessary to wash your clothing all the time,” Riley said. “Just wash your clothes regularly and change them every day.”
Clothing is ‘unlikely’ to be a source of infection if you’re not a medic working all day with COVID-19 patients, experts say
According to official guidance, if you’re a healthcare provider, or taking care of someone with the virus, some additional precautions may be warranted. The UK’s National Health Service advises washing potentially “high risk” items like patients’ towels and clothing, as well as healthcare workers’ uniforms, on high heat. The CDC advises healthcare workers wash and dry their clothes with as much heat as possible.
However, clothing is unlikely to be a major source of infection for the general public, since it’s more likely you’ll get sick from person-to-person contact, according to Dr. Sue Anne Bell, a nurse scientist, family nurse practitioner, and professor at the University of Michigan.
“It’s primarily spread by droplets, so you’d need to be thinking about if someone is coughing or sneezing directly on you, or brushing up against something with droplets. Then you’d have to touch that part of the clothing and touch your face to get infected,” Bell told Insider.
She said that while it is possible for clothing to be contaminated, and there are steps you can take to prevent that, the biggest priority is to follow previous advice about physical distancing and hygiene.
“That’s somewhat of a stretch. I would focus my efforts much more on staying at home, not being around other people who might be affected, wearing a face mask, and careful handwashing,” she said.
If you’re concerned about exposure, remove and bag clothing after being in public, and wash it separately from other laundry
Bell says that, to be safe, you could establish a protocol for returning home with possibly contaminated clothing, even if you’re not a medical worker or otherwise caring for a COVID-19 patient.
“If you’re very concerned about it, you could leave your shoes outside, and wash and dry clothes any clothes you’ve worn in public separately,” she said. This is also her personal routine after seeing patients.
To do so, remove whatever you’ve worn in public immediately when you get home, either in the entryway or garage if possible. Leave your shoes outside or in the garage, and spray them with a disinfectant if you’re able to. Put your used clothing in a garbage bag and then shower, changing into a fresh set of clothes once you’re clean, Bell said.
If you’re able to wash your clothes immediately, that’s a good idea, she added, but for people without access to an in-home washer and dryer, you can repeat the procedure as many times as necessary, storing outdoor clothes in a sealed, disposable bag, until you have enough to warrant a trip to the laundromat.
When washing, be sure to not shake the bag, and keep it as close to the washer as possible while transferring clothes to avoid spreading any viral particles. Wash your hands thoroughly after contact with any potentially contaminated clothes, or use gloves.
A regular laundry cycle with hot water and soap, and a thorough dry, should be sufficient, according to CDC guidelines.
“With detergent, the virus would be killed very quickly, and with a dryer, the heat would kill it,” Riley explained.
Remember: The best defence against the virus is to stay home, wash your hands, and stay calm
“I think we need to be aware but not frightened,” Long Gillespie said.
“In the ER, you’re used to scary moments, you stay calm, you stay aware, and you have a plan. I don’t go more than I have to, I don’t spend more time than I have to, and I wash up afterward.”
If this kind of cleaning routine puts your mind at ease, it can be helpful to do so, Bell said.
But it’s still no substitute for other preventive measures like washing your hands, staying 6 feet away from other people, and whenever possible, not going in public in the first place. It’s also important not to panic: stress can be damaging, and there’s no need to if you’re staying home and clean.
“Following the latest guidelines, like staying home, washing hands, and wearing a mask if you do go out, is the best thing you can do right now,” she said.
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