How Fast Can a Virus Spread? Faster Than You Think
Researchers track how germs travel and find common contamination hot spots.
By Ashley Welch
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Contamination of a single doorknob can lead to the spread of viruses throughout an office building or hotel in as little as two hours, according to a new study.
Researchers from the University of Arizona, Tuscon, placed a tracer virus on commonly touched objects such as a doorknob or tabletop. At multiple time intervals – from two to eight hours – the researchers sampled a range of surfaces including light switches, bed rails, countertops, sink tap handles, and push buttons. They found that between 40 and 60 percent of the surfaces were contaminated within two to four hours.
“If we placed a tracer virus on the push plate to an office building, it ended up on almost 50 percent of the high-touch surfaces and office workers’ hands within four hours,” says study author and microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD. “In the case of the hotel, we placed the virus on the nightstand in one room, and it was spread to the next four rooms by the maid during cleaning.”
The first item to become contaminated in the workplace was the coffee pot handle in the office break room. “It pays to be the first one to get a cup of coffee in the office before anybody else,” Gerba says. Other contamination hot spots include phones, computers, and desktops.
The tracer virus used in the study had properties similar to the human norovirus, the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in this country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
About 1 in 15 Americans contract norovirus each year. It's responsible for between 56,000 and 71,000 hospitalizations and 570 to 800 deaths annually.
One of the most common sources of infection is touching contaminated objects and then putting fingers in your mouth.
RELATED: Your Stomach Bug May Well Be Norovirus
The study included an intervention phase in which cleaning personnel and employees were given disinfectant wipes containing quaternary ammonium compounds, or quats, and instructed to use them at least once a day. The number of contaminated surfaces was reduced by more than 80 percent.
“The best weapons in germ warfare are hand sanitizers, hand washing, and the use of disinfecting wipes,” Gerba says. To protect children in the classroom, he recommends sending them to school with wipes to clean off their desks.
The CDC offers these additional tips to reduce the spread of norovirus:
- Followproper hand hygiene.Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, especially after going to the bathroom, cleaning dirty diapers, and before preparing and eating food. If soap and water are not handy, use an alcohol-based sanitizer.
- Use caution in the kitchen.Rinse all fruits and vegetables before eating, and cook shellfish thoroughly. If you are sick, do not prepare food for others.
- Washlaundry thoroughly.Immediately wash clothes or linens that may be contaminated. Use rubber gloves for handling soiled items, and wash your hands right after. The clothes should be washed with detergent at the maximum available cycle length and machine dried.
Video: Just How Fast Does A Virus Spread?
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