How Does COVID-19 Spread?

Disclaimer: At UPMC HealthBeat, we strive to provide the most up-to-date facts in our stories when we publish them. We also make updates to our content as information changes. However, education about COVID-19 can shift quickly based on new data, emerging variants, or other factors. The information in this story was accurate as of its publish date. We also encourage you to visit other reliable websites for updated information, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and your state and local governments. 

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, has spread worldwide since first appearing in China in late 2019. COVID-19 has caused millions of infections and hundreds of thousands of deaths. The World Health Organization (WHO) classified it as a global pandemic in March 2020.

Once infected with COVID-19, people can spread the disease to each other.

There are many questions about how the coronavirus is spreading and what steps you can take to protect yourself.

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How COVID-19 Spreads Between People

COVID-19 spreads person-to-person through airborne droplets.

When a person infected with COVID-19 coughs, sneezes, or talks, it releases droplets into the air. An uninfected person in close contact then can inhale the droplets and become infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines close contact as within 6 feet.

COVID-19 causes symptoms like fever, cough, and trouble breathing. However, people can spread the disease before they develop symptoms or even if they have minor symptoms.

Can I Catch COVID-19 From Touching Things?

According to the WHO, COVID-19 also can spread through infected surfaces.

Airborne droplets from an infected person can land on surfaces or objects. If uninfected people touch infected objects or surfaces and then touch their noses, mouths, or eyes, the disease potentially can spread.

Many people have questions about how long the virus can survive on specific surfaces.

The New England Journal of Medicine published research on how long the coronavirus could last on certain surfaces in a controlled environment:

  • In the Air: The virus was detectable for up to three hours
  • Cardboard: The virus was detectable for up to 24 hours
  • Copper: The virus was detectable for up to four hours
  • Plastic: The virus was detectable for up to three days
  • Stainless steel: The virus was detectable for up to three days

The study authors reported that the amount of virus on those surfaces decreases over time.

How Can I Protect Myself From COVID-19?

The CDC outlines steps you can take to help prevent yourself from getting COVID-19:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick: The CDC defines close contact as within 6 feet.
  • If you’re sick, stay home: Use isolation and/or quarantine if you are showing symptoms or if you believe you were exposed to the coronavirus.
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth: If you have the virus on your hands and you touch those areas on your face, you could get COVID-19.
  • Wash your hands: You should wash your hands regularly. It’s especially important after coughing or sneezing, before cooking and eating, after using the bathroom, and after touching common surfaces like countertops, tables, and doorknobs. Use soap and water and scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds before rinsing. If soap and water are unavailable, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes: Use a tissue when you cough or sneeze and throw the tissue away afterward. If you don’t have a tissue, try to cough or sneeze into your elbow. Wash your hands afterward.
  • Clean common surfaces: Sanitize frequently touched surfaces like tables, counters, doorknobs, remote controls, phones, sinks, and more. Use a household cleaning spray or a disinfecting wipe.
  • Use social distancing: Try to avoid large crowds, where the disease can spread more easily.
  • Follow the CDC’s recommendations for using a facemask: People who are sick or who are taking care of sick people should wear a facemask. When you go out in public, you should wear a cloth face covering.

For more on COVID-19 and UPMC’s response, visit

What to Do If You Are Sick . Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1. New England Journal of Medicine.

About Infectious Diseases

If you have a disease caused by bacteria, fungi, parasite, or virus, the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases can help. Our team of experts is specially trained in the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, including of HIV-AIDs, postsurgical and transplant infections, illnesses caused by international travel, and more. We research infectious diseases and participate in clinical trials to learn more and develop better treatment and prevention methods. Visit our website to find an expert near you.