After a loved one gets over a bout of sickness, it’s natural to want to drop by for a visit. But as we know, the coronavirus is nothing like a common cold, and even after someone feels better, a phone call may be better than going in person.
But what about after the 10-day isolation period is over? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, someone who gets sick with the coronavirus can be around others after isolating for 10 days, starting when symptoms first appeared — as long as there’s no fever for 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medications) and other symptoms are improving.
At this point, is it safe to enter your loved one’s home? It’s a question reader Sue Lampland posed to Curious Philly, our platform where readers ask us questions, and reporters hunt down the answers. Lampland wondered, how long do COVID-19 “germs stay in the home?”
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Here’s what to know about visiting someone who has recovered from COVID-19.
When can I visit someone who had COVID-19?
If a person meets the CDC’s criteria for ending home isolation (again, this means self-isolating for 10 days, is fever-free for 24-plus hours, and other symptoms are improving), experts agree that it’s highly unlikely that person is still contagious. But that doesn’t mean you should sit yourself down in your loved one’s living room.
“I don’t think anyone should be inviting anyone into their house right now,” says Craig Shapiro, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. “It’s always safest to meet people outside, while staying six feet apart, with a mask on.”
Stopping the spread of COVID-19 is about minimizing risk. Even if a person is no longer contagious, there are other factors that could play a role in transmission.
Can COVID-19 linger in the air of someone’s home?
The coronavirus is thought to spread mainly through close contact (within six feet) from person to person. By coughing, sneezing, singing, talking, or breathing, an infected person releases respiratory droplets that contain the virus that can be inhaled by another person, landing on the mucous membranes that line the inside of the nose and mouth.
Gravity causes larger droplets to quickly fall to the ground, but smaller droplets and particles spread apart and can linger for minutes to hours in the air. COVID-19 can also spread through exposure to these small droplets and particles, which is called airborne transmission. This can spread the virus from person to person even when further than six feet apart, or after an infected person has left the space. This primarily happens in indoor settings with poor ventilation. It leaves the question, should you be concerned about virus particles remaining in the air if you go inside someone’s home after that person has recovered?
“I wouldn’t be concerned about the air quality. The risk isn’t in the air harboring virus — but that’s assuming the person’s no longer symptomatic and there are no other people in this household,” says Neal Goldstein, an assistant research professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University.
Because the particles only linger in the air for a few hours maximum, it’s unlikely that’ll be an issue if you’re headed to someone’s house who’s no longer contagious. But as Goldstein points out, there are bigger concerns. Could this person still be sick? And what about others in the household?
How do I know if someone’s still contagious?
You’ll need to be able to trust that your friend isolated for the full 10 days, checked for a fever faithfully, and is actually feeling better. A few lingering symptoms are OK, but a fever and symptoms that aren’t improving could indicate someone is still contagious.
“Lingering symptoms can be part of the body’s immune response even once the virus has been cleared from the system and you’re no longer shedding it,” says Goldstein. “The lack of fever is probably the best indicator of this.”
Prolonged loss of taste and smell is common, and can last for months after recovery. Other mild symptoms can remain after 10 days, too, and aren’t considered concerning as long as they’re improving. But there’s a caveat. If a person became severely sick from COVID-19 or is immunocompromised, the amount of isolation time doubles. In either case, a person could be infectious for up to 20 days after symptoms appear.
What if there are other people in the house?
Then there’s the second factor: If your friend lives with other people, those people could be infected. How long they may be contagious depends on how well your friend was able to isolate from the rest of the household, and for how long. In general, if you’ve been exposed, you’re supposed to quarantine for 14 days, starting from the date of your last contact with the infected person.
There’s also always the chance that anyone in the house could’ve been exposed to the virus elsewhere. And as we know, you can have COVID-19 and never develop symptoms, making it tricky to know who’s infected. You can also spread the virus in the days right before you develop symptoms, called the presymptomatic phase.
“Unless there’s a really good reason to go into someone else’s house, why would you?” says Shapiro. “You just don’t know who in that house could be contagious.”
Can I get COVID-19 from surfaces in a house?
Let’s say you do have a good reason to visit someone who’s recovered. Is it safe to sit on that person’s bed or use the bathroom?
Respiratory droplets can land on surfaces, and it’s possible you could get COVID-19 if you touch a contaminated object and then touch your face. But the virus can only live up to a few days on surfaces, and this isn’t thought to be a common way the virus spreads. As a result, experts say touching your friend’s doorknob or TV remote shouldn’t be your main concern. Regardless, you can, and should, routinely wash your hands, which is your greatest protection against any potential surface transmission.
If you’re the one who had COVID-19, there’s no need to deep clean your house. But it wouldn’t hurt to throw your hand towels in the laundry and wipe down your bathroom, as you’d likely do after you’ve recovered from the flu or most other illnesses.
“Even though they aren’t likely to be a source of transmission, wipe all high-touch surfaces, to be extra safe,” says Shapiro.