COVID-19 in the house: How to reduce the risk of transmission
Further infections are not inevitable, if you take the following steps.
- 1 June 2021
- 5 min read
- by Linda Geddes
Few people would want to catch COVID-19, regardless of their age or general health. Even though younger people are less likely to need hospital treatment or die from the disease, some do. They’re also at greater risk of post-COVID syndrome or so-called “Long Covid” – a poorly understood condition that affects around one in seven under 65s in the six months after becoming infected with coronavirus.
As the pandemic continues, there’s a good chance that someone in your household may become infected at some point – even if cases in your country are currently low. Although within-household transmission of the virus is very common, it is not inevitable, so it is worth trying to reduce the risk of others becoming sick.
Some people with COVID-19 will develop a runny nose and many develop a dry cough. Any used tissues should immediately go into the dustbin, because the virus can survive on surfaces for many hours.
Make a plan
Catching COVID-19 from someone in your household isn’t inevitable, but it is fairly likely. So, you should plan for this eventuality in advance. Contact local family, friends and neighbours to ask if they could help deliver groceries or essential medicines, rather than risking leaving the house in case you have become infected and don’t yet know it. It may also be worth notifying your employer that you have COVID-19 in the house, so they’re aware you may need to take time off sick, or to care for someone you’re living with.
People with COVID-19 are considered most infectious from the first day of developing symptoms through to the fifth. However, this varies between individuals, and people don’t suddenly stop shedding virus after day five, so it pays to remain vigilant for longer. Beyond nine days, even though the virus may still be detected in an infected person, using a highly sensitive PCR test, they are unlikely to be infectious and so these measures can be relaxed.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is mostly transmitted through airborne droplets produced when people cough, talk, sneeze and breathe. Larger droplets quickly fall to the floor, so keeping 1-2 metres away from the infected person is a good idea. If your home is large enough, try to spend as much time as possible in separate rooms, with infected people isolating themselves to as few rooms as possible and with food left outside for them, to avoid them using the kitchen.
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Smaller airborne droplets can linger in the air, accumulate, and be carried further distances. Allowing their air to circulate will dilute the amount of airborne virus. So, if infected house members are able to isolate, they should try to keep windows wide open. Elsewhere in the home, try to open doors or windows in different rooms and keep adjoining doors open, to create a current of air throughout the home.
Cloth face masks are designed to catch and contain the larger respiratory droplets produced when an infected person speaks, coughs or sneezes, but they won’t contain smaller droplets – so although helpful, some virus may escape.
Also, non-disposable masks need to be washed regularly to remain effective. A hot wash at 60 degrees Celsius or more is best; handwashing in cold or lukewarm water is inadequate. Try to avoid handling an infected person’s used masks as they will likely be full of virus, and if you get it on your hands you may accidentally transfer it to your face and other surfaces around the home.
Surgical masks (which are often light blue in colour, and made of a combination of paper and plastics) are better; they help block smaller airborne particles and also protect the wearer. These should be double-bagged and stored for 72 hours, before being thrown away with other household rubbish.
Catch it, bin it or wash it
Some people with COVID-19 will develop a runny nose and many develop a dry cough. Any used tissues should immediately go into the dustbin, because the virus can survive on surfaces for many hours. Infected people should also be encouraged to cough into the crook of their elbow. Their clothing, bedsheets and towels are likely to be contaminated, so care should be taken when loading them into the washing machine or tub – especially as shaking them may cause viral particles to be resuspended in the air, and potentially inhaled. Hot water (ideally above 60 degrees Celsius) and detergent disables the virus.
COVID-proof your home
Coronavirus can be transferred from people’s hands and faces to surfaces, and subsequently contaminate other surfaces when people touch them. This includes hard surfaces such as kitchen worktops or door handles, as well as plates, cups and cutlery. Frequent hand washing is important for all household members, not just those infected, as is the disinfection of frequently touched surfaces.
The virus can also be shed in faeces, so it is a good idea to ask people to close the toilet lid when they flush, and, of course, wash their hands with soap. If possible, the infected person should use a separate bathroom, and if a ventilation fan is available this should be left running and windows left open.
Treat any symptom as suspicious
Most people know to look out for a continuous dry cough, fever, shortness of breath and an altered sense of taste or smell. But not everyone develops these symptoms, and their other symptoms may be mild and easier to miss. These include fatigue (tiredness), muscle or body aches, headache, sore throat, an unusual rash, congestion or a runny nose, and nausea, vomiting, or diarrhoea. If you’re living with an infected person and develop any of these symptoms, you should immediately self-isolate to avoid infecting others in your household or community.
If you can, book a test
Not everyone has access to COVID-19 tests, and the type of test may vary depending on where you live. Also bear in mind that no test is 100% reliable, so if you have symptoms you should continue to self-isolate even if you receive a negative result. If it’s possible to report your test result to the authorities, do so, as it will help them keep track of outbreaks and take measures to contain them.