March 20, 2020: Article was updated to include information on pregnancy and breastfeeding

Like many others, you probably have questions about the 2019 coronavirus. And one of those questions may have to do with how the virus is able to spread.

First, some brief explanation about the coronavirus itself: The clinical name for this novel coronavirus is actually SARS-CoV-2. It stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.

It originated from a family of other viruses that cause respiratory diseases like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Because the novel coronavirus is a new strain, it’s unfamiliar to our immune systems. And there’s not yet a vaccine for it.

If a person contracts the virus, the result is the disease called COVID-19. Being a respiratory virus, it’s transmitted through respiratory droplets.

Let’s take a closer look at how the novel coronavirus spreads from one person to another, and what you can do to protect yourself.

Person-to-person contact is thought to be the main method of transmission for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Imagine sitting next to someone with a SARS-CoV-2 infection on the bus or in a meeting room. Suddenly, this person sneezes or coughs.

If they don’t cover their mouth and nose, they could potentially spray you with respiratory droplets from their nose or mouth. The droplets that land on you will likely contain the virus.

Or perhaps you meet someone who contracted the virus, and they touched their mouth or nose with their hand. When that person shakes your hand, they transfer some of the virus to your hand.

If you then touch your mouth or nose without washing your hands first, you may accidentally give that virus an entry point into your own body.

One recent small study suggested that the virus may also be present in feces and could contaminate places like toilet bowls and bathroom sinks. But the researchers noted the possibility of this being a mode of transmission needs more research.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Medical experts haven’t determined whether a woman can transmit SARS-CoV-2 in utero, through childbirth, or through her breast milk.

The CDC currently recommends that mothers with a confirmed case of the virus, as well as those who may have it, are temporarily separated from their newborns. This separation helps decrease the risk of transmission.

Women should speak with their healthcare providers about the benefits and risks of breastfeeding. The CDC hasn’t released any official guidelines regarding whether women with confirmed or suspected cases should avoid breastfeeding. They have, however, suggested that these women take the following precautionary measures:

  • Wear a face mask while breastfeeding, if possible.
  • Properly wash their hands before holding or breastfeeding their infant.
  • Properly wash their hands before touching a bottle or breast pump.
  • Clean the breast pump each time it’s used.

They should also consider having someone who isn’t sick use expressed breast milk to feed the infant.

Summary

Person-to-person contact seems to be the main method of transmission of the novel coronavirus.

Transmission typically occurs when:

  1. Someone with the virus sneezes or coughs on you, leaving respiratory droplets on your skin or clothing, or you touch someone who has the virus on their skin or clothing.
  2. You then touch your face, which gives the virus an entry point via your mouth, nose, or eyes.

Right now, the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that your risk for contracting the novel coronavirus from someone who isn’t showing any symptoms is very low.

But here’s some sobering news: Experts do believe it’s possible that someone with a novel coronavirus infection could transmit it to others even if they don’t show any symptoms, or have such mild symptoms that they don’t really know they’re sick.

According to the CDC, a person who has contracted the virus is most contagious when they’re showing symptoms — and that’s when they’re the most likely to transmit the virus.

But someone may be able to pass on the virus even before they start to show symptoms of the disease itself. The symptoms may take anywhere from 2 to 14 days to show up after exposure to the virus.

One recent study of 181 patients with COVID-19 found a median incubation period of about 5 days, with more than 97 percent showing symptoms by 11.5 days after exposure to the virus.

Summary

According to the CDC, a person with COVID-19 is most contagious when they’re showing symptoms.

Although rare, there have been cases where someone has spread the novel coronavirus even though they didn’t have symptoms of COVID-19.

Think of all the frequently touched surfaces where germs can lurk: kitchen counters, bathroom counters, doorknobs, elevator buttons, the handle on the refrigerator, handrails on staircases. The list goes on and on.

Experts don’t know for sure how long the novel coronavirus can survive on these surfaces. But if the virus behaves like other, similar viruses, the survival time could range from several hours to several days.

The type of surface, the temperature of the room, and the humidity in the environment may play a role in how long the virus can survive on a surface.

But since we don’t know for sure, if you think a surface may be contaminated, clean it thoroughly with a disinfectant. A diluted bleach solution or an EPA-approved disinfectant is likely the most effective cleaner for this purpose.

And if someone in your home is sick, frequently clean those surfaces. Remember to thoroughly wash your hands afterward.

Summary

Experts don’t know for sure how long the novel coronavirus can survive on surfaces. The survival time span could range from several hours to several days.

It can be difficult to avoid being exposed to the virus, especially if you’re often surrounded by other people. But, according to the CDC, there are a number of things you can do to protect yourself:

  • Stand back. Try to stay clear of people who are coughing or sneezing. The WHO suggests staying at least 3 feet away from people who may be sick. The CDC suggests an even wider berth of about 6 feet.
  • Wash your hands frequently. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds every time.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer if you don’t have access to soap and water. Look for a product that’s at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your face. You can easily transmit the virus from your hands to your mouth, nose, or eyes without even realizing it.
  • Stay home. You may hear this called “social isolation.” Staying away from groups of people may help you avoid being exposed.

Right now, experts are suggesting that it’s not necessary to wear a face mask to protect yourself from getting sick.

However, according to the CDC, people who are sick should wear a mask if they’re around other people.

Because the information about the 2019 coronavirus is constantly evolving, facts can get distorted. This can lead to myths and beliefs that aren’t accurate.

Here are some myths regarding the way the novel coronavirus is spread.

Myth: Mosquito bites can give you the 2019 coronavirus

There’s currently no evidence showing that anyone has contracted the virus from a mosquito bite. Experts note it’s a respiratory virus, not a bloodborne virus.

Myth: You can contract it if you buy goods manufactured in China

According to the WHO, it’s highly unlikely that the virus would remain on the surface of a product made in China and shipped to the United States or elsewhere.

If you’re concerned, you can clean the surface of the item with a disinfectant wipe before you use it.

Myth: You can get the 2019 coronavirus from your pet

Again, there’s no evidence at this point to indicate that your cat or dog can contract this particular virus and transmit it to you.

Myth: Eating garlic can prevent you from getting COVID-19

Unfortunately for garlic bread lovers everywhere, boosting the amount of garlic in your diet will not protect you.

COVID-19 causes symptoms that are similar to those of other types of respiratory illnesses. Typical symptoms of COVID-19 include:

Flu-like symptoms, such as chills and body aches, are less common with COVID-19.

Also, shortness of breath is more pronounced with COVID-19 compared with the seasonal flu or common cold.

If you think you have symptoms of COVID-19, head home and stay there. Isolating yourself at home and staying away from other people can slow the transmission of the virus.

You’ll also want to:

  • Contact your doctor. Let your doctor know about your symptoms and get advice on what to do. They can work with local health authorities to determine if you need to be tested for the virus.
  • Limit exposure to others. Limit your contact with others in your home. Avoid sharing household items with them.
  • Cover your nose and mouth. Use a face mask if you’re around others. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and discard the tissue right away.

What to do if you have symptoms of COVID-19

If you have COVID-19 or suspect you have the virus that causes COVID-19, you should seek medical care.

You have several options for obtaining medical care, including being seen by your primary healthcare provider. The CDC recommends calling your provider first so that they can take the necessary steps to prepare for your visit and protect others from possible exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.

Some healthcare providers also offer virtual visits through your smartphone or laptop, so you may not need to leave your home for an initial assessment.

If you don’t have a primary healthcare provider, you can use this tool to find a local primary care office in your area.

If you have a medical emergency, call 911. Notify the operator that you have COVID-19 or suspect exposure to the virus that causes it. If possible, put on a face mask before emergency medical services arrive.

Disclosure: Healthline maintains a partnership with some of the providers linked above and may receive compensation for services provided.

As time passes, experts will learn more about this novel coronavirus, how it behaves, and how it’s transmitted.

In the meantime, try to be proactive about handwashing and respiratory hygiene to give yourself the best shot at avoiding it or spreading it.

If you do develop symptoms of COVID-19, call your doctor. This is especially important if you’ve been in contact with someone who already has COVID-19, or if you have symptoms that start getting worse.