Have you thought about the cleanliness of objects that you and the people around you touch all the time? Here’s what you need to know about cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched items as part of your efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Your keyboard, your cellphone, knives and forks, lift buttons, toilet flushing mechanisms, stair railings, keys, card machines, access disks, door handles, taps – the list goes on and on. Each of us touches these and many other things every day. No matter your context, you will handle some items often in your day.
Many of these are things we touch after washing our hands.
How might cellphones contribute to the spread of the COVID-19 virus?
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) recently posted an eye-opening video on the way in which cellphones are worsening the spread the COVID-19 virus. Prof. Cheryl Cohen – the NICD’s Head for Respiratory Diseases and Meningitis explains that people are inseparable from their phones. We know that the main way the virus is spread is through contact – through our hands. And our hands are constantly touching our phones and then coming up to our faces. So we do need to think of our phones as any other potential vector of the virus. Prof. Cohen adds: “Say you are in a shop and carrying your phone and someone with COVID-19 has sneezed over the counter. You might put your cell phone down to pay and then pick it up and it could be contaminated with the virus. You might also give someone – who you may not know is ill - your phone to use.” Hand washing is the most important way to prevent the virus getting from any environmental source onto our bodies – washing hands for 20 seconds with soap and water.
See more on how to clean your cellphone below
Are your hands as clean as you think they are?
The global pandemic caused by COVID-19 has suddenly alerted us to the dangers of handling many items. Everyone is now cautious of frequently touched surfaces in public places, such as stair railings and door handles, lift buttons, escalator handrails, supermarket trolley handles and all communal surfaces in the workplace (if you are not working from home).
Worldwide there is an effort to clean all of these more often. People seem to be aware of the importance of washing their hands immediately after they have touched any of these surfaces.
Yet, even in the case of objects that only you have touched, there is still a danger that they carry pathogens.
Your hands might not be as clean as you think or you may have touched a contaminated surface without even realising it. An example would be when closing the tap in the public bathroom after you have washed your hands.
An Australian study found that medical students touched their faces in average of 23 times in an hour. You probably do the same.
Can COVID-19 be transmitted from frequently touched objects?
So how real is the danger of the COVID-19 virus being transmitted by contaminated objects?
It's very real, because the virus is stable for several hours to days on surfaces and liquid droplets in the air, according to a study published by the National Institutes of Health on March 17 2020. The study found that the virus could be detected in droplets in the air after three hours and could survive for four hours on copper, 24 hours on cardboard and up to two or three days on plastic and stainless steel.
The illness is thought mainly to spread from person to person when someone coughs or sneezes and the droplets land on someone else's mouth or nose. But frequently touched surfaces hold a danger too. If you touch a contaminated surface or object, and touch your nose, eyes or mouth with unwashed hands, you could transmit the virus.
Cleaning versus disinfecting
The difference between cleaning and disinfecting, says the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is: Cleaning removes germs and dirt, while disinfecting refers to the use of chemicals to kill germs.
The following high-touch surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected at least daily, they recommend: tables, hard-backed chairs, doorknobs, light switches, remotes, handles, desks, toilets, taps and sinks.
They recommend using disposable gloves when you clean and disinfect surfaces. After removing the gloves, wash your hands for 20 seconds using household soap and water. It is more effective than hand sanitiser, even though sanitiser is certainly better than nothing, and recommended when soap and water are not available.
Clean surfaces and objects using a detergent soap and water. Bleach solutions and alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol will be effective in disinfecting surfaces and objects. Bleach solutions should not be mixed with household cleaning products.
Using the same cloth to clean multiple surfaces will only spread the virus. Disposable cloths and wipes are recommended.
Don’t touch an ill person's cutlery, crockery and laundry without immediately washing your hands.
Specific items you touch all the time
Cellphones are central to our lives – especially now that we are practising social distancing. We touch our phones all the time – there's a reason it is called a ‘touch screen’. A 2012 study from the University of Arizona found that cellphones had ten times as many germs on them as most toilet seats. People clean toilets, but they don't think of cleaning their cellphone. Until now.
So how do you clean a cellphone without damaging it?
Apple says you can use a disinfectant wipe on the screen, but certainly shouldn't submerge your phone in cleaning agents. Alcohol-based disinfectants might make your phone's display less clear for a while, but it's a small price for remaining healthy. A strong alcohol solution could damage the screen's coating, so be careful. Turn your phone off before wiping it down and make sure you don't get any moisture in the openings, such as the charging port. Make sure you don't spray cleaners directly onto the screen and stay away from aerosol sprays, bleaches or abrasives. All of these will damage the screen.
Make sure other people don't use your phone. Offer to call on their behalf. If someone else has used your phone, clean it immediately.
Computer keyboards. You're possibly sitting in front of one right now. You can clean keyboards using disinfecting wipes. Be careful not to spray cleaners onto keyboards or to get the keyboard wet because you could damage it permanently. If you carry a laptop around with you, wipe it down every time you go into a different room.
Desktop. Remove any papers and objects from your desk. Use disinfectant to clean the whole surface properly. Do this even more regularly if more than one person uses the desk.
Keys can harbour the COVID-19 virus for up to 48 hours, according to Dr Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England. Keys that more than one person use, such as bathroom keys in public places or door keys in a household, need wiping down with an alcohol-based solution (containing at least 70% alcohol) after each use.
Your bag. If you are leaving the house to go to work or to go shopping, don't use a fancy handbag, workbag or briefcase. Use one that you won't mind wiping down with a disinfectant wipe – and remember that leather and bleach don't mix.
Money is difficult to avoid handling. The COVID-19 virus can survive for up to five days on metal and 24 hours on paper. It is recommended that you wash your hands after handling cash or using an ATM – more now than ever. Also do so after using a supermarket card machine. Right now, it is better to use cards or do online transactions – any type of contactless payment. Remember to use a wet wipe to also clean your wallet. That is something you touch all the time.
Door handles – even the ones in your own home – can harbour the COVID-19 virus for up to 72 hours. All hard surfaces can, but this is one surface everyone touches.
So, in summary, take stock of the items you often touch, use wet wipes and alcohol-based disinfectant, and wash your hands after touching any surfaces that could harbour viruses. In this way, protect yourself, your family and all the people around you.
All medical information found on this website including content, graphics and images, is for educational and informational objectives only. Discovery Health publishes this content to help to protect and empower all South Africans by promoting a better understanding of COVID-19.
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