How long do germs live on surfaces hard and soft? How long do cold germs live on fabric compared to plastic? Does it vary between hard surfaces, like metals and plastic, and fabrics? The short answer is yes—and there are a lot of other factors that may impact germs' lifespans, too.
Today, these questions are more relevant than ever. That’s why we’re devoting an entire blog post to exploring cold and flu germ transmission. To fully understand, how long do cold and flu germs live on surfaces, here’s what you need to know.
The following information is meant for educational purposes. It does not serve as medical advice.
How Long Do Germs Live on Surfaces? 4 Takeaways
- They may live longer on hard surfaces (metals and plastics) than porous ones (skin and fabric).
- Life-spans are unique to the viruses in question. For instance, the avian flu may live up to 2 months whereas measles may live only two hours.
- COVID-19 (coronavirus) may live between 24 to 9 days on surfaces, depending on the research considered.
- The typical flu may be contagious for up to three days, though their DNA may live on for longer than that on hard surfaces.
There is a lot of confusion surrounding how long do germs live on bedding fabric, plastic, metal, and other materials because research may vary. It is also crucial to remember that COVID-19, for instance, is poorly understood given its novel status. Compared to the typical cold germs, for instance, there is little that researchers know about it. For up-to-date information on the pandemic, please speak with your physician or see the CDC website.
What Are Germs? Reviewed
Though this may seem like a silly question, it’s important to distinguish between viruses, bacteria, and fungi. The term “germ” is used in reference to various types of microorganisms that can cause disease in humans. The best way to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses is by washing your hands for a minimum of 20 seconds with soap and water.
4 Types of Germs
- Bacteria: Single-cell organisms that aren’t necessarily bad. They exist in almost all environments on earth, including within the human body, especially the stomach and the skin.
- Viruses: Even smaller organisms than bacteria, viruses need a host to survive. When a virus infects someone, it may take over some fo that body’s cells for its own functions.
- Fungi: These are multi-celled organisms that can cause infections that are typically less serious.
- Parasite: These single-cell organisms are larger than bacteria, meaning that they resemble animals more than the other germs on this list. Parasites are typically spread through contaminated water.
17 Diseases Caused by Bacteria, Viruses, Fungi, and Parasites
Before answering, how long do germs last, it’s important to know what conditions they can cause when transmitted. These germs can cause a variety of conditions, ranging from mild to serious. Here are a few examples for each subset.
- Urinary tract infection (UTI)
- Strep throat
- Food poisoning
- Sinus infection
Remember that not all bacteria are negative. In fact, the digestive tract requires healthy bacteria in order to function properly. How long do bacteria germs last within the human body? Antibiotics are a common treatment for many of these conditions. Keep in mind that antibiotics only work on bacteria, not viruses.
- Common cold
- Coronavirus (COVID-19)
As you can see from this list, viruses range in terms of severity. The common cold is a virus, as is Ebola. In most of these cases, there is no “cure;” getting better typically means waiting for the body to recover by resting, drinking fluids, and sometimes supplemental oxygen. There are some antiviral treatments and vaccines available, but not all viruses have these options.
How long do flu germs live on surfaces is a big question today with the COVID-19 pandemic. And since coronavirus is, as its name would suggest, a virus, there is no “treatment” aside from supplemental oxygen.
- Athlete’s foot
- Yeast infection
The treatment for many of these conditions is an antifungal cream or, in extreme cases, an oral antifungal medication.
Malaria is the most common form of parasitic infection. There are many others, though some parasites can exist within their hosts without causes an infection or health risks. Like viruses, parasites can only survive within their host, though that host can be a plant or animal, too.
How Long Do Germs Live on Surfaces?
Germs can live for hours to days, depending on where they fall. For instance, harder materials such as stainless steel and plastic are a much more favorable home than fabrics. Beyond that, viruses live longer than bacteria on soft and hard surfaces alike.
Other environmental factors matter, too. Some viruses prefer cool temperatures and encounter more resistance within the body during warmer months, according to this research from the National Academy of Sciences. For these reasons, the flu is most common in fall and winter, between October and May, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
But do we know exactly how long germs live? And how do cold and flu germs compare? Here is what some of the research suggests.
What’s the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu?
Both of these illnesses are very common. In fact, the average American experiences 2 to 3 colds per year, according to the CDC. Most colds come from a virus called a rhinovirus, though coronavirus and other respiratory viruses may cause similar symptoms. By contrast, the flu is typically a result of Influenza A.
How Long Do Flu Germs Live on Hard Surfaces like Plastic or Metal?
There isn’t a lot of research on that subject, and the results are contradictory. Here is what we know:
- One study found that Influenza may be contagious for up to 3 days.
- Another body of research found that flu germs remained on hard surfaces for a maximum of 9 hours and only 4 hours on porous surfaces, like fabric.
- By contrast, a study from the 1980s found that the flu was contagious on plastic for up to 48 hours.
- The avian flu is particularly long-lasting: It may live between two weeks and two months on hard surfaces.
- Measles may live on hard surfaces for two hours, according to the New Jersey Department of Health.
How long do flu germs live on surfaces depends on the type of virus and the type of surface. They seem to have an even shorter life expectancy on human skin. The safest course of action is to wash hands regularly and use natural antimicrobial products.
How Long Do Coronavirus Germs Live?
The following is not medical advice. Please see your physician for information regarding your health and the pandemic.
When it comes to how long coronavirus germs live, research is contradictory.
- One comprehensive review of 22 studies found that COVID-19 germs can live on hard surfaces—including glass and metal—for up to 9 days, excluding disinfection. This includes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
- Research cited on NPR found that the virus can live up to 48 hours on stainless steel and up to 24 hours on cardboard.
Which Surfaces Are Most Favorable to Germs?
Hard surfaces, specifically metal and plastic, are more favorable to both cold and flu viruses. However, they can live on human skin and porous surfaces, like fabric, though typically for shorter periods of time.
Not all metals are equally receptive to germs. Our upcoming antimicrobial door knob cover, made from silicone infused with micronized silver, uses silver’s antibacterial properties to stop the spread of germs on one of a household’s most commonly touched surfaces.
Specifically, silver and bronze, including brass, are well-known for their ability to kill bacteria and viruses. Stainless steel does not share these properties. Instead, it may house bacteria and viruses for a long period of time. Plastic, such as a phone cover, may also house germs.
How to Stop the Spread of Germs on Surfaces
The best way to stop the spread of viruses and bacteria is to wash your hands thoroughly for a minimum of 20 seconds, maintain social distancing, wear face coverings like a face shield, and follow other advice from the Center for Disease Control.
But how do you keep germs off common touchpoints throughout the home and office? We recommend you stay up-to-date on the release of our antimicrobial door handle covers. Made from third-party lab tested antimicrobial silicone, our doorknob covers may help reduce the spread of germs on one of their favorite resting places.