How the coronavirus spreads

A woman sneezes into her elbow.

COVID-19 is a new disease, and there is still a great deal we don't know about it. But we are learning new information almost every day.

One of the most important things to know about COVID-19 is how it spreads. That's one of the keys to containing it. Here's what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found so far.

Cover those coughs

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is called SARS-CoV-2. It appears to spread mainly from person to person. It may pass from an infected person through the droplets they breathe out when they cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land on people who are nearby and possibly be inhaled into their lungs. That's why people are urged to keep a distance of at least 6 feet from one another and to cover coughs and sneezes with a face mask, tissue or elbow.

It may also be possible to pick up the virus from the air in poorly ventilated indoor spaces. Or a person may be able to get COVID-19 by touching an object that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes—but this is less likely. It's still a good idea, however, to clean shared surfaces daily.

What about silent spreaders?

CDC experts now believe that a significant number of people who are infected with SARS-CoV-2 may show no symptoms. That means you can't rely on warning signs like a fever, cough or shortness of breath to alert you that you're contagious. It is possible to spread the virus even when you feel fine. Keeping your distance from other people—at least 6 feet away outside your home—can help protect everyone. 

It's also important to:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Wear a face mask if you leave your home.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Then throw it out.
  • Wash your hands often. Use soap and water and wash for at least 20 seconds.
  • Avoid touching your face between handwashings.
  • Clean surfaces you share with others often.
  • Get vaccinated as soon as you're eligible.

If you're fully vaccinated, you can stop wearing a mask and social distancing in most instances.

Visit our Coronavirus health topic center for more tips on coping with the pandemic.

Reviewed 6/8/2021

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