Months into the coronavirus crisis, travellers have grown familiar with how to protect themselves on airplanes, in hotel rooms and among crowds. But what about the risk of returning home with potentially contaminated travel gear? Can you catch or spread the virus through your luggage or clothing? Medical experts say the threat is low but suggest several precautions you can take to reduce the worry even more.
Global health organizations and professionals do not yet know how long the coronavirus can live on certain materials, so they are basing their information on similar viruses, such as the one that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). The World Health Organization estimates the coronavirus's survival time from a few hours to several days, depending on various factors, such as type of material, air temperature and humidity. Hard, nonporous materials such as metal, plastic and glass are more welcoming habitats for viruses than soft goods such as fabrics.
In travel terms, this means the virus might hang out longer on the aluminium handle of your carry-on than on your canvas tote. Fortunately, the coronavirus is an enveloped virus and probably does not have a long survival rate on surfaces, according to Ann Falsey, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. By comparison, the norovirus, the previous bane of cruise ships, is a non-enveloped virus and has a longer shelf life.
Falsey said the coronavirus can probably survive two to four days on hard surfaces, generally less than a day on fabrics and other porous materials, and 30 minutes to an hour on hands.
Greg Poland, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said that to contract the virus from your luggage, you would need a very specific series of events to occur.
"You'd literally have to have someone sneeze all over it, get mucus on it and then, within minutes to a few hours, you would have to touch your bag and then your face," he said.
To ease concerns, he said travellers can wipe down the parts of their luggage that might have been handled by other people, such as airline baggage handlers, bellhops and airport shuttle drivers. He suggests swiping the exposed area with a disinfectant towelette or squeezing anti-bacterial gel onto your hand and spreading it over the vulnerable area. When asked about disinfecting the entire bag, he responded, "Power wash your suitcase? I don't think so."
Georgine Nanos, a California-based physician specializing in epidemiology and public health, recommends cleaning "anything anyone could potentially touch." She suggests using wipes, but if the local market's shelves are bare, soap and hot water will do the trick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides a recipe for bleach solution on its Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations page: Mix five tablespoons of bleach per gallon of water or four teaspoons of bleach per quart of water. (The agency also explains the difference between cleaning and disinfecting, an important distinction. Cleaning removes germs, dirt and other unwelcome guests from surfaces; disinfecting involves germ-destroying chemicals.) Be aware that the cleaning products could damage your bag, depending on the material.
For clothing worn on your trip, the experts advise the usual course of action: Throw your load into the washer and dryer or ship it off to the dry cleaner. The CDC suggests refraining from shaking your bag of dirty laundry; you don't want to disperse the virus in the air.
If you prefer a more comprehensive and less a la carte approach to your post-trip cleanse, Falsey says to gather your travel items in one place at home and leave them there, untouched, for several days. "Don't use them for a week and the virus will die," she said.
Poland said he would put any potentially contaminated items outside in the sun. The reason: Warmer temperatures, higher humidity and strong ultraviolet rays can disrupt the virus.