How Long Cold and Flu Germs Live on Surfaces

Cold and flu germs can last around 24 to 48 hours on hard surfaces.

Even if you’re not usually a germaphobe, cold and flu season can have the strongest-willed of us feeling squeamish about touching things like bus and subway poles, doorknobs, and even shaking a stranger’s hand.

Adults have an average of two to three colds per year and children get even more. Although you can get a cold any time of year, it seems that everyone is sniffling and sneezing during the colder months, making a hands-off policy seem like a smart idea.

But can you really pick up germs by touching a surface that someone who is already sick touched?

How Likely Is It?

It's actually pretty likely you’d get sick from touching an infected handrail or countertop, Alison Carey, MD, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Drexel University, told Health.

“Flu viruses can survive on hard surfaces (like bus poles) and infect another person for 24 to 48 hours,” said Dr. Carey. “Cold viruses don’t survive as long—usually a few hours. But there is evidence that they can survive and be passed on for up to 24 hours.”

So yes, it’s entirely possible that someone who has a cold or the flu can sneeze into their hand, then touch a doorknob or bus pole, and anyone who opens the same door or grabs the same pole for the next few hours—and possibly up to a whole day or two—can catch their illness.

Decreasing Chance of Infection With Time

Dr. Carey said that the longer the virus sits on a surface, the chance of someone catching a cold or flu decreases. “But people can definitely get it from touching bus poles, especially in the five to 10 minutes that elapse from a sick person getting off the bus and someone else getting on,” noted Dr. Carey.

Any surface can harbor a cold or flu virus long enough for someone to touch it and get sick, Dr. Carey said, but there are certain germy hotspots—like bus and subway poles and doorknobs.

Flu and cold viruses live longer on non-porous surfaces (plastic and stainless steel counters, poles, doorknobs) compared to porous surfaces (cloth, paper, tissues).

Basically, it’s worth being wary of any surface that gets touched repeatedly during the day, such as handrails, doors, light switches, faucets, and public transportation poles. “If you’re going through a subway turnstile [during your commute], that gets touched and touched and touched,” said Dr. Carey.

Protect Yourself From Cold and Flu Germs

So how can you protect yourself, short of wearing latex gloves everywhere you go? It comes down to good hand hygiene and proper sneezing etiquette, said Dr. Carey: “Just wash your hands! And keep them away from your face as much as possible."

People touch their faces all the time without realizing it, added Dr. Carey, and that’s an easy way to take a cold virus from the doorknob right into your body. “It’s not that difficult to pass along the viruses,” said Dr. Carey. “That’s why everyone gets sick this time of year [during cold weather].”

If you’ve touched an infected surface and then bring your hand up to cover a yawn or rub your eye or scratch your nose, then you’re introducing that virus to a vulnerable spot on your body where the virus can get in.

How To Reduce Your Risk at Home

Take these steps to help prevent flu and colds:

  • Get the flu vaccine
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or use the inside of your elbow when you sneeze or cough
  • Wash your hands frequently and for 20 seconds with soap and water
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol) when soap and water aren't available
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces (counters, toys, doorknobs, mobile devices)
  • Avoid people who are sick
  • Stay home if you have a cold or flu

How To Reduce Your Risk in Public Places

Along with the ways to prevent flu and colds at home, you can take these additional steps when in public:

  • Carry hand sanitizer in a purse, backpack, or carrying case
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Carry disinfecting wipes to clean hard surfaces
  • Consider wearing a mask in densely populated places like buses, subways, and airplanes

A Quick Review

Because flu and cold viruses survive on hard surfaces for 24 to 48 hours, it's very possible to get these viruses after touching surfaces like countertops, door knobs, and subway poles. But just because you've touched one of these surfaces doesn't mean you'll get infected.

By keeping your hands away from your face and washing your hands (or using hand sanitizer) frequently, you can help prevent the virus from getting inside your body. If you do get a cold or flu, stay at home and away from others (if possible) until your symptoms improve.

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  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common colds: protect yourself and others.

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