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How does COVID-19 spread and how can I stop myself from getting it?

Monday 16 March 2020

A set of images of people sneezing, planes flying and thermometers.
Knowing how novel coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads can help you stop yourself and others from becoming sick.

This article was written during the Queensland response to the COVID-19 pandemic and reflects the information available at the date of publication. Please check the Queensland Government COVID-19 webpage for updated information and current health advice regarding COVID-19 in Queensland.

Viruses are tiny organisms that live inside ‘hosts’ (like you!). When you have a viral infection, like influenza or coronavirus (COVID-19), it means that the virus is living inside your body.

The virus that causes COVID-19 is called SARS-CoV-2. Every time we have a new confirmed case of COVID-19, it means that SARS-CoV-2 has spread from one person to another.

How does COVID-19 spread from person to person?

Like any living organism, viruses like to multiply and spread to make sure they’ll survive. SARS-CoV-2 spreads from person to person through droplets that an infected person sneezes or coughs out.

These droplets carrying SARS-CoV-2 can enter your body through the mucous membranes (wet parts) of your face – your eyes, nose and mouth – which provide a direct pathway to your throat and lungs. The good news is that it can’t get in through other parts of your body like your skin or your hair, but you might be surprised just how easily it can get to the mucous membranes of your face.

First of all, the droplets from someone’s cough or sneeze might fall directly into your eyes, nose or mouth if you’re close enough to the infected person, letting the virus enter your system straight away.

Or, the droplets might fall onto a surface where you then put your hands. If you don’t wash your hands, you could move the virus into your eyes, nose or mouth and become infected. The infected person might also get the droplets on their hands if they cough or sneeze into them, and then place them on a surface, where you pick them up.

Direct membrane-to-membrane contact can also spread the virus. This could happen by kissing. The virus can also be spread by sharing items that go in your mouth, eyes or nose, like cutlery, cups, straws, water bottles or cosmetics.

Can COVID-19 spread through the air?

So far, studies show that people are mainly catching COVID-19 through larger respiratory droplets when they are close to an infected person or when these droplets fall on a surface that they then touch, rather than the virus hanging out in the air. The latest advice (9 July 2020) from the World Health Organization confirms that the virus can spread through the air while patients in hospital are having particular types of treatment (known as aerosol-generating procedures). Healthcare workers already know to take extra precautions when these treatments are happening.

Outside of medical settings, there are a small number of studies that suggest the possibility of the virus spreading from an infected person, short distances through the air in poorly-ventilated, indoor, crowded places. On extensive investigation of these clusters, it was found that these still may have occurred by droplets from coughs or sneezes either landing directly on a person or landing on surfaces, particularly where hand hygiene and physical distancing were not maintained.

If with further study we find out this information has changed, we’ll let you know.

Images of five actions taken to prevent the spread: stay home when you're sick, cover coughs and sneezes, stay 1.5 metres away from sick people, wash your hands.

How can I protect myself from catching COVID-19?

Washing your hands often and properly is the best way to stop yourself from catching COVID-19. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (or the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice). Clean your hands often, particularly before you eat and after you go to the toilet. If you don’t have access to soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.

You should also try not to touch your face. This can be harder than it sounds, because we naturally touch our faces often! See if you can pay attention to how often you put your hands on your face, and then gradually try to do it less.

If someone is sick and coughing or sneezing, you should try to stand 1.5 metres away from them, to stop any droplets getting into your system. How far is 1.5 metres? It’s about the length of a shopping trolley, a giant tortoise or the height of Kylie Minogue. Imagine keeping one of these things between you and anyone who seems to be unwell. We have now updated our advice to ask people to practice 'social distancing', which means staying 1.5 metres away from all people.

We’re also asking that people who are sick, with any kind of virus, stay at home when they’re unwell so they don’t cough or sneeze any droplets onto other people or surfaces others might touch.

To slow the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the Queensland Government tightened restrictions around staying at home, going outside, and having visitors to your home.

Together Queenslanders have slowed the spread of COVID-19 by staying at home. As a result, from 16 May 2020 the Queensland Government will continue to ease restrictions on movement within Queensland. You can find more information about current guidelines here.

As people around the world continue to study COVID-19, we might find out more about the virus and how it spreads. For now, this advice is the best way to protect yourself from the disease.

More information

Queensland Health: Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Coronavirus (COVID-19) – everything you need to know, in language you can understand

Health Direct: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

World Health Organization: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Contact tracing for coronavirus (COVID-19) - how it's done in Queensland

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Last updated: 16 March 2020