In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, fears that the coronavirus could live on surfaces had many people wearing gloves in public and wiping down groceries once home from the store.
As the monkeypox outbreak continues to become more serious, and with the United States today declaring the virus a public health emergency, some may be wondering if these types of preventative measures might become part of our collective reality once again.
Unlike coronavirus, the monkeypox virus can be transmitted from person to person via contaminated objects, fabrics, or surfaces, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said. But even though the virus can live on surfaces, experts say the odds of catching monkeypox this way are low.
Here’s a closer look at how monkeypox spreads from contaminated surfaces, who should be especially cautious about the surfaces they’re interacting with, and which disinfecting strategies help ensure your house is virus free.
Monkeypox, like other poxviruses, can live on fabrics, surfaces, or objects for up to 15 days, especially in cool or low humidity environments, the CDC said.
People with monkeypox typically have pox lesions on their body—if those lesions come into contact with a surface or fabric, the virus can cling there and contaminate it. The same is true for bodily fluids or respiratory secretions of a person infected with monkeypox.
These infected surfaces or objects, called fomites, can transmit the virus to an otherwise healthy person.
“Poxviruses tend to affect skin surfaces and some mucosal surfaces—thus, they spread more via direct contact but also via respiratory secretions,” Nicholas Turner, MD assistant professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine told Health. “That ability to replicate within skin lesions is what lets poxviruses transmit via contact.”
But even though the virus can survive on surfaces and make the jump to healthy individuals, that’s far from the most common mode of transmission. The large majority of infections seem to be happening from direct person-to-person contact, said Sumit Chanda, PhD, a professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research.
“It’s not impossible to get it through what’s called fomite driven transmission,” Chanda told Health. “If someone who has a lot of these actively replicating pox is sleeping in a bed and you have very close contact, it’s been documented. But it’s exceedingly rare.”
Only if the circumstances are right—there is active virus present on the fomite and a person touches their nose, mouth, or other opening in the body after contact—is it possible that a person can catch monkeypox, he explained.
So, who needs to be concerned about monkeypox transmission from infected surfaces or objects? At this point, not many people. “Unless you are around a known infected person, it’s not necessarily something you need to take precautions for,” Chanda said.
Based on current levels of community transmission, sitting in a restaurant or trying on clothes, for example, are likely very low risk activities. Driving to the store and risking a traffic accident, Chanda said, is probably more dangerous than trying on clothes in the midst of this monkeypox outbreak, especially considering that the disease is not usually fatal.
“This does not appear to be a major contributor to transmission out in public spaces,” said Dr. Turner. “It is probably a bigger issue for select settings, such as individuals handling hospital or hotel laundry.”
But if community transmission increases and monkeypox starts to circulate in larger numbers in specific areas, Chanda added, that may be a good time for people to reconsider being extra careful and reintroducing preventative measures in daily routines.
The good news is that even though the monkeypox virus can hang around for a while, it’s not that difficult to kill off.
“Poxviruses are generally fairly susceptible to most soaps, cleaners, and disinfectants. They are not as difficult to kill as hardier viruses like norovirus for example,” Dr. Turner explained. “This partly relates to the fact that pox viruses have an envelope—a lipid layer kind of like our own cell membranes—which is more prone to drying or destruction by cleaning agents.”
This is especially true if the contaminated object is a non-porous—a tabletop counter, light switch, or appliance, for example. If something is porous—like bedsheets, a couch, or clothing—it may hang on to the monkeypox virus for a longer period of time. These also tend to be the things that may have more direct contact with the lesions on a person’s body too, Dr. Turner added.
Even so, simple disinfecting methods usually do the trick when it comes to sanitizing things you worry might be fomites.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a website where people can filter through products the agency has approved to kill certain viruses. Monkeypox, which is classified as a Tier 1 virus, can be killed by a long list of household products for hard surfaces, including products with standard active ingredients like bleach, hydrogen peroxide, and ethyl alcohol. The EPA’s website also includes disinfecting recommendations for porous surfaces, as well.
If something can’t be machine washed, try washing it in a bathtub with a cleaning agent, or seal the item and leave it sitting for 21 days, the NYC Department of Health recommends.
After an individual recovers from a monkeypox infection, it’s important for them to sanitize all surfaces and objects they may have come into contact with to be safe, according to the CDC.
Even this, Chanda said, is probably more than may be necessary. The biggest risk of spreading monkeypox is still from direct contact with someone else, which right now seems to be largley through sexual activity. Disinfecting your home and space to make sure there’s no fomites is certainly the best way to make sure the virus isn’t spreading to other roommates or guests, but the best thing a person can do is avoid that close contact.
Isolating for two to four weeks, covering lesions if possible, wearing a mask to avoid respiratory transmission, and being good about washing your hands are all easy ways that Dr. Turner said can help a person stop the spread of monkeypox.
“If you’re in the proximity of someone who has the infection, then it’s probably a good idea to use a bleach-related product, but I don’t think that we need to be walking around in hazmat suits to not catch this,” Chanda added. “Most of the transmission will be through very close and oftentimes intimate contact with somebody, and not kind of a casual transmission event.”
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