Each week, we answer frequently asked questions about life during the coronavirus crisis. If you have a question you’d like us to consider for a future post, email us at email@example.com with the subject line: “Weekly Coronavirus Questions.”
My kid is back in school. Do I need to wash their clothes after they come home each day to be safe?
It’s normal to wonder what you can do to minimize the risk of virus transmission if you’re in a region where schools have reopened or plan on reopening soon. And clothing is of particular concern. Young kids don’t exactly have the greatest hygiene: They pick their nose, put their hands in their mouths, wipe dirt on their clothes, touch other kids — you get the idea.
So it makes sense to worry that viral particles could somehow get on your kid’s clothing and be a source of infection. A sick kid could accidentally cough on the sleeve of another child’s clothes, and the kid could use that same sleeve to rub their nose or mouth. Or parents could be strapping their kid into a car seat and accidentally touch a bit of clothing that has been compromised, then use those same hands to touch the nose or mouth or eyes.
Your instinct might be to wash your kid’s clothes once they get home from school so they’ll be not only clean but free of viral particles. But does it make sense to do that? Every day?
As Christopher Friese, nursing professor and director of the Center for Improving Patient and Population Health at the University of Michigan, puts it, washing clothes certainly can’t hurt.
“The practical solution would simply be to [set aside] those clothes and not wear them immediately the next day.” In other words, it’s perfectly fine to just dump it in the hamper until your next laundry day. No need to ramp up your laundry schedule or separate them from other clothing in a different hamper.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines that dirty laundry from a person who is sick can be washed with other people’s items. Use the warmest water possible and thoroughly dry the clothes. Just make sure to clean and disinfect your clothes hamper from time to time, wiping them down with a standard household disinfectant.
But given what we know about the virus and how it tends to transmit, clothes are probably not something to stress too much about.
To explain, Friese points to a recent paper that models how SARS-CoV-2 can make us sick if the virus is on skin, currency and clothing.
“After eight hours on fabric [made of a mix of cotton], [researchers] weren’t able to find traces of the virus,” Friese explains. “This is an encouraging sign that clothing is less of a transmission risk than previously noted. The evidence would say not to worry too much.”
Stephen Morse, an epidemiology professor at Columbia University says this advice can be applied to any other scenario where your clothes would be exposed to many surfaces, for example, sitting in a public bus or being in a place like an airport or airplane where you’d have sustained contact with seats or equipment touched frequently by other people. It’s probably a good idea to wash your clothes — or not rewear them for eight hours — after these trips anyway, but if you don’t, it’s unlikely to be the potential source of disease transmission.
Clean clothes aside, our sources stress it is far more important to focus energy on making sure your child follows the other precautions at school: physical distancing, face masking and hand hygiene. These changes, Morse and Friese explain, are most likely to make the biggest difference in keeping your kid safe.
“The real challenge is going to be washing hands,” Friese emphasizes. “Even in good times, it’s really hard to get kids to do this.”
Could the coronavirus hibernate inside your body and reemerge years later, like chickenpox?
“Obviously, time will tell,” Morse says, “but we have no evidence this is likely to happen.”
Morse explains that chickenpox is a herpes virus — and its “lifestyle” is very different from the virus we’re currently dealing with. As Morse puts it, herpes viruses really like to “hang out” in the human body, placing their genetic material into certain cells, so they can stay dormant for a long time.
On the other hand, this is not a trait that scientists have observed with other coronaviruses – which typically don’t tend to stay latent for years as those herpes viruses do, Morse explains.
Pranav Baskar is a freelance journalist who regularly answers coronavirus FAQs for NPR.