Over the course of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released guidance on everything from how to minimize your risk of contracting COVID-19 at the grocery store to the safest ways to gather with loved ones. Now, the agency has new guidance on how to do your laundry if someone in your household is sick.
The question of how long SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, can live on surfaces—including clothes—has been widely discussed since the beginning of the pandemic. Research published in The New England Journal of Medicine in April 2020 found that it can live on plastic, steel, and glass for 72 hours and cardboard for 24 hours.
Researchers didn’t study how long SARS-CoV-2 can live on clothes but the new CDC guidance offers some insight on how to stay safe. The recommendations are part of overall guidance on how to clean and disinfect your home when someone in your household is ill, including with COVID-19. Here’s what you need to know.
How likely are you to get COVID-19 from your laundry?
According to new data from the CDC, the overall risk of contracting COVID-19 from surfaces is one in 10,000. In other words, you have a 0.01 % chance of getting the virus from touching a surface and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. However, the CDC noted, the risk may increase due to certain circumstances, including how much of the virus is on an object and the length of time between when viral particles landed on the object and when the object was touched.
So, how likely are you to get COVID-19 from your laundry? Experts say not very. “I’d say the risk is extremely low,” says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University.
That said, you could have an increased chance if someone in your home has COVID-19, says Robert Laumbach, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor at the Rutgers University School of Public Health. But you’re more likely to contract the virus from being in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 versus touching their dirty laundry, he notes.
Infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, agrees that laundry is probably not a huge threat for the average person. “It’s never been a big concern,” he says. “I’ve never done my laundry differently, and I take care of COVID patients in the hospital.”
So, what’s the best way to do your laundry to protect yourself from COVID-19?
The CDC has recommendations for laundry best practices, along with specifics about what you should—and shouldn’t—do with dirty clothes when someone in your house is sick with COVID-19.
Here are their recommendations:
- Use the warmest appropriate water setting and dry items completely.
- Wash your hands after handling dirty laundry.
- When handling dirty laundry from a person who is sick, wear gloves and a mask.
- Clean clothes hampers or laundry baskets with soap and water or detergent under normal circumstances. If someone in your house is sick, clean them with a disinfectant.
The CDC says that it’s safe to wash dirty laundry from a person who is sick alongside healthy people’s clothes.
According to Emanuel Goldman, Ph.D., professor of microbiology, biochemistry, and molecular genetics at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, the advice to disinfect your laundry basket may be out of an abundance of caution. “The virus dies quickly without any intervention,” he explains. But, if you need to use your laundry bin directly after it held clothes from someone with COVID-19, it can’t hurt to clean it just in case, he notes.
The bottom line
If someone in your household has COVID-19, you should play it safe and follow the CDC’s guidelines for laundry, says Dr. Laumbach. If everyone in your home is healthy, doctors say you shouldn’t stress over getting COVID-19 from your dirty clothes, even if you’ve been out in public.
As always, though, it’s a good idea to wash your hands frequently, Dr. Watkins notes—including after you’ve loaded up the washing machine.
This article is accurate as of press time. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly evolves and the scientific community’s understanding of the novel coronavirus develops, some of the information may have changed since it was last updated. While we aim to keep all of our stories up to date, please visit online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department to stay informed on the latest news. Always talk to your doctor for professional medical advice.
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