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The coronavirus is airborne: How to protect yourself

Here are the top tactics to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

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More than a year after the start of the pandemic, it's still important to take safety precautions against the coronavirus.

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For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

As we move into a second summer living with the coronavirus, we continue to learn more about how to protect ourselves and our community against a disease that has caused nearly 600,000 deaths in the US. Prevention is still our best tactic against COVID-19, and right now, the best thing you can do for your health is to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

While preventive measures have been highly politicized in the US, we know that a few other key behaviors -- wearing a face mask, practicing good hygiene, and keeping distance from others -- are effective and can prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

Here, we touch on old and new information on methods to protect yourself and others from getting sick.

How likely are you to get the coronavirus? 

Anyone can contract the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, although certain groups of people have a higher risk of developing serious complications from the virus and requiring hospitalization. Many people who get the coronavirus will experience cold- or flu-like symptoms, and some people who get the virus will be completely asymptomatic

Everyone, regardless of health status, has a responsibility to limit the spread to other people, especially to those who may develop deadly complications, Dr. Tom Moorcroft, an osteopathic doctor who specializes in infectious disease, tells CNET. 

Thankfully, many of the actions you would take to protect yourself can also protect other people. 

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Coronaviruses under a microscope.

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How does the coronavirus spread?

The coronavirus is spread through respiratory droplets that are expelled from the body when you cough or sneeze, but can also be expelled when you speak or breathe. That vapor can get into the air, where someone else breathes it in and then gets infected. You can also spread the coronavirus by sneezing or coughing into your hand and then touching a surface that someone else then touches, such as a door handle or elevator button.

In October, the CDC acknowledged airborne aerosols as a mode of transmission, which tells us that a distance barrier of six feet might not always be sufficient. In May 2021, the CDC officially changed its guidance and now states that the coronavirus is airborne, and transmission is possible "when people are far apart or have been in the same enclosed space for more than a few minutes." 

Aerosols are much smaller than droplets and contain microscopic virus particles that can remain in the air for hours and spread several meters. Estimates range from 4 meters, or about 10 feet, up to 10 meters or 32 feet.

Influenza viruses and common cold viruses also spread similarly to the coronavirus, so if you're ever unsure of what to do to protect yourself, consider how you would act if you knew that everyone around you had the flu. With that, here are the best ways to protect yourself from the novel coronavirus.

How to protect yourself from the coronavirus

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Despite the public frenzy in response to the CDC's acknowledgement of airborne transmission, not much really changes in terms of precautions and preventive measures, says Dr. Nate Favini, physician and medical lead at Forward. 

"Those of us who have been following this closely have suspected that the coronavirus is airborne for a long time," he says, "and frankly, the public health authorities have been very behind in identifying and announcing this.

"I don't think that that means the guidelines will necessarily change because a) it's probable that most transmission still comes from larger droplets, and b) the current guidelines do protect from airborne viruses," he says. 

In any case, the following tactics are steps everyone should take to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Get vaccinated

All people in the US, 16 and older, are eligible to get one of three vaccines. On May 10, the FDA authorized the Pfizer vaccine for ages 12 and up. The CDC will likely make the final decision by week's end.

Vaccination is your best bet to protect yourself and those around you -- and the best shot to reach herd immunity.

Wear a face mask

The CDC continues to recommend that everyone wear a face covering (not a mask meant for a health care worker) when out in public, such as at the grocery store. This protects you and other people from you, in case you unknowingly have the virus and have the potential to transmit it. 

"A lot of the transmission is happening via superspreader events," Dr. Favini says, "where people are in close proximity and not wearing masks." 

Wash your hands

Yes, this is still the best way to prevent getting the coronavirus, Dr. Moorcroft says. "The things you should do to protect yourself from the coronavirus are things you should do every day," he points out. "The No. 1 thing you can do to prevent any respiratory illness is to practice good personal hygiene."

Washing your hands correctly -- using soap and water and washing for at least 20 seconds -- or using hand sanitizer when soap and water aren't available, still stands as the best way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, according to the CDC

Stay out of unventilated indoor areas

Now that we know COVID-19 can spread through aerosols, we must pay attention to the air quality and ventilation quality in our homes and other indoor areas, Dr. Favini says. Air purifiers, high-quality AC filters and allowing outdoor air inside (i.e., opening the windows) can improve the air exchange rate in your home. 

Your risk of infection varies depending on the amount of virus you were exposed to, the CDC reports, and this risk is amplified in indoor areas, as the virus can survive in the air even after an infected person has left the room. If you must be indoors, like when grocery shopping or eating at a restaurant, decrease your risk through poor ventilation by making your shopping trip quick, or by choosing a restaurant you know enforces COVID-19 guidelines. 

Avoid close contact those who are sick or have been exposed

This might be common sense, but don't get too close to people who are sick (whether with the novel coronavirus or something else) or who have been exposed to the coronavirus. The CDC reports that person-to-person contact is the primary method of transmission for the coronavirus, so take care to distance yourself from people showing symptoms. 

Avoid unnecessary trips

It's still smart to avoid indoor public places when you can, especially if you're someone who has a high risk of developing serious complications. 

Try doing your banking online instead of going to the bank, for example. Carefully plan out your grocery list so you don't have to make a second or third trip. If you used to go out to eat three times per week, start with just one night -- and consider takeout. 

Obviously, we can't all stay home and avoid leisure activities forever, so when you do leave your house, follow some basic preventive measures.

Follow local public health guidelines

Nearly every state and local government has published guidelines of what to do to slow the spread of the coronavirus. These include social distancing, restricting what kinds of businesses can operate and what kinds of activities -- such as outdoor exercise or private gatherings -- are allowed.

For example, restaurants might offer outdoor seating or need to operate at a limited indoor capacity. 

If your state or local government has imposed guidelines, you should follow them to the best of your ability.

Boost your immune system

On top of basic illness prevention, Dr. Moorcroft says the best (and only real) defense against disease is a strong immune system. Your body is better able to fight off illnesses when your immune system is really humming, he explains, and everyone should put in an effort to get theirs into tip-top shape. 

"This is a time to focus on all the health habits you may have been putting off," Dr. Moorcroft says. "Start daily activities and food choices that support your health and turn them into habits that will lead to lifelong improvements in health. During this time, get adequate sleep and some fresh air and sunlight daily." 

Also, stay hydrated, minimize overly processed foods and make sure to get enough vitamin D, vitamin C, antioxidants and other essential nutrients. 

Stay calm

In addition to your physical health, you should take care of your mental health. High stress levels can take a toll on your immune system, which is the opposite of what you want if you're trying to avoid the coronavirus. If you're feeling overly anxious about COVID-19, follow these tips from a psychotherapist to keep your nerves calm.

Read more: 12 meditation apps for better sleep and less stress

Other tips

Dr. Moorcroft also reiterates the CDC's advice for avoiding coronavirus (and other respiratory diseases): 

  • Sneeze and cough into tissues or the crook of your elbow. If you get mucus or spit on your skin, clean it off right away. Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick, especially people exhibiting respiratory symptoms and fever.
  • Stay home when you're sick.
  • Clean surfaces, such as counter tops and doorknobs, with a disinfectant. 

Read more: The best thermometers for cold and flu

How can I protect myself while traveling?

Even if you're traveling to (or through) locations with reduced infection numbers, avoiding discretionary travel is smart. For travel guidelines, check with your local or state officials and stay up to date with federal travel restrictions, CDC recommendations and WHO recommendations.

Stay informed

Dr. Moorcroft encourages everyone to stay armed with the facts. Specifically, he recommends monitoring the CDC website and the WHO website, where both agencies post daily updates on the number of cases in the US and in the world, as well as continually updated guidelines on how to protect yourself and others. 

It's easy to get swept up in the ever-increasing amount of information available online, as well as the fear and misinformation that spreads on social media, and your best bet is to get your information from the actual health organizations that are investigating the issue firsthand. 

"I hope that people will feel empowered by knowing the facts," Dr. Moorcroft says, "and say, 'I have access to the information, I know how to take care of my body and I can keep myself safe.'"

The bottom line

Dr. Favini says he fully acknowledges pandemic fatigue. 

"Folks are just tired of this, and we all want to get back to our normal way of life," he says. "That's so understandable and natural for us to want that, but it's critical for people to understand that nothing about the way the virus spreads has changed since the start of the pandemic.

"We need people to hang in there and keep doing the right thing and taking care of each other," he adds.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.