Clear Answers to 16 Confusing COVID-19 Questions

We sifted through the dizzying array of info to bring you these expert-backed responses.

By Caitlin Kilgore
Woman running outside with mask on

Nothing about the novel coronavirus is easy, including getting a straight answer on just about any topic — and not having it contradicted the next day. On top of that, some questions are tough to ask either because you feel you should already know the answer or they are embarrassing (Spoiler alert: You probably won’t catch COVID-19 from a fart.) 

Below, we’ve done our very best to bring you concrete and reliable information on some of the most vexing COVID-19 questions, based on official updates from the government, two leading infectious disease experts, a functional medicine expert and even a dentist.

One note: It’s important to follow the advice of health officials who have jurisdiction in your area and to check in with your personal healthcare providers, as some safety protocols differ slightly between counties and states.

1. What’s the difference between social distancing, sheltering in place, quarantining and isolating?

These words have quickly become part of our everyday vocabulary — and the practices they refer to are all meant to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Although orders may differ state to state, here’s an overview:

Social distancing means deliberately increasing the physical space (the CDC says at least six feet) between yourself and those around you, especially while in public spaces, like a park, grocery store or post office. It’s still important to only go out when it’s essential — and don’t forget to wash your hands as soon as you return home. According to William Schaffner, MD, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, good hand hygiene is the most important barrier between you and the virus. 

Shelter in place means to stay inside and only leave your home for essentials. After California and New York adopted shelter-in-place orders early on, many other states followed suit (although many are beginning to reopen again).  

While a lot of people are casually using the term quarantine to describe hunkering down at home with significant others, family and roommates, technically, quarantining means to isolate someone who may have been exposed to the virus but has not yet developed symptoms or to protect someone who is in a high-risk category. 

The CDC recommends at least 14 days of self-quarantine to account for the coronavirus incubation period. This protocol should be followed by anyone who has visited a place where coronavirus is spreading rapidly, been around someone who has symptoms or has traveled by air — whether or not you test positive.

Isolating is a lot like quarantining — it is intended to separate those who have been confirmed to have COVID-19 (the illness caused by the coronavirus) or have symptoms that point to COVID-19 — from those who are well. If you are isolating at home, monitor your symptoms and follow instructions from your healthcare provider and local health department. To protect the other members of the household, Schaffner says, “Designate one room and, if possible, one bathroom for the potentially infected person and only let one person interact with them.” He also recommends that the caregiver should try to maintain the six feet of distance, use gloves to handle any food or clothes from the isolated person and immediately dispose of gloves and wash their hands after every interaction. For more info on at-home care, go here.

2. If it’s windy outside, should you stay further than six feet apart?

“Most of the virus transmits within three feet, so six feet is practical; however, the farther away you are, the better,” says Schaffner, adding: “If it’s windy, you’re actually in better shape — the wind will dilute the virus and blow it away, so being in open air with a breeze is far better than being in an enclosed room.”

3. Should you wear a mask when you go out to exercise, like on a run?

This is a hard one to definitively answer because it is circumstantial — and predicated on whether you are likely to encounter anyone from whom you can’t stay at least six feet apart. Although little research has currently been conducted on the specific rate of transmission from outdoor activity, most experts agree that the likelihood of catching it while walking or running outside is unlikely. 

Good rule of thumb: Bring a mask when you go outside for a run and keep it around your neck. If you see someone and you have to pass them (especially within six feet), put the mask on to be safe, respectful and responsible.

Certain states are now requiring everyone to wear a mask when they visit essential businesses or use public transportation. The order also comes with the warning that masks are not a substitute for social distancing and that maintaining at least six feet of distance is still a non-negotiable must.

4. Can you get COVID-19 through sex?

Talk about a burning question! The risk of infection goes up when you are within six feet of an infected person (whether symptomatic, presymptomatic or asymptomatic) and that the virus is spread through droplets when an infected person breathes, talks, sneezes or coughs. And, well, it’s impossible to practice social distancing and have sex (unless it’s via FaceTime from separate rooms).

But if you have been sheltering at home with your spouse or partner, this doesn’t mean you should stop being intimate altogether. According to Harvard Health, “If both of you are healthy and feeling well, are practicing social distancing with others and have had no known exposure to anyone with COVID-19, touching, hugging, kissing and sex are likely to be safe.”

The CDC and WHO have not explicitly offered information regarding intimacy protocol because as of now, there is still little known about how transmissible it is through bodily fluids other than saliva and mucus. A new study out of China has found coronavirus in the semen of men infected with the virus, while other research has detected the virus in the gastrointestinal tract and in urine of those infected. However, due to these being small case studies, more research needs to be done on virus shedding, concentration and survival time in semen and other bodily fluids. 

With much still unknown about the spread of coronavirus, the safest advice (to borrow from this notice from NYC Health) about sex during the age of corona is this: “You are your safest sexual partner.”

5. Can you contract it through your eyes?

According to Schaffner it is theoretically possible but likely rare in real life. The coronavirus spreads mostly through viral droplets entering through your nose and mouth. Because COVID-19 is a respiratory infection, it is easier to infect through the nose or mouth because they are more directly linked to the respiratory system than the eyes. However, like any cold or flu, if you touch your eyes with an infected hand or if viral particles somehow get into your eyes, you can get sick.

6. Can you become infected through passed gas?

Although a study in Gastroenterology suggests there could be fecal oral transmission of coronavirus after finding viral RNA in the fecal samples from patients, transmission of coronavirus through passed gas “has never been demonstrated,” Schaffner assures us. Fear that it can spread through fecal matter or passing gas may originate from the 2003 SARS outbreak, when the virus was spread through sewage aerosols. So far, the CDC has found no evidence that COVID-19 spreads through the sewage system. 

That being said, public restrooms have been reported as a potential contamination point due to high-touch surfaces (faucets, door knobs, toilets), so avoid them if possible. If you do use a public restroom, wash your hands well and use a disposable glove or paper towel to touch the faucet or any other surface.

Water Fountain
You don't need to fear fountains, as long as the water stream is high enough off the metal.

7. Is drinking from a public water fountain safe?

It should be pretty safe, as long as your lips don’t touch the metal. “If you drink from the spray of the water, it’s perfectly fine,” says Schaffner. If you have the ability, wipe down the push button beforehand with a disinfectant wipe and use hand sanitizer right after.

8. Should you wipe down your groceries or mail?

Schaffner says that “wiping down grocery bags, groceries, and mail is going the extra mile. More meticulous people will do this, but it’s not necessary.” However, once again Schaffner issues this reminder: “Whenever you interact with something from the outside world, wash your hands right after.”

9. Is eating takeout food risky?

The FDA states that currently, "there is no evidence to suggest that food produced in the United States can transmit COVID-19." The reason? The virus poses the most risk when it attaches to your respiratory tract and nasal passages. If you digest viral particles, your stomach acid kills it. So unless you are literally inhaling your food, it's improbable that you’d contract the virus through your meals. 

The virus can, however, be on takeout containers — so throw away those pizza boxes and wash your hands before you eat. A cashless “no-touch” system for delivery, such as sending a text or calling when the package has been left outside the door, is also the safest way to order in, according to guidelines established by the FDA.

10. Can you track the virus in on the bottom of your shoes?

“Studies show that viral remnants can be on the bottom of shoes, but it’s not going to come up and bite you in the ankle,” assures Schaffner. If you come inside and take your shoes off with your hands, immediately wash your hands.If you practice good hand hygiene, you interrupt the sequence of interaction with the virus,” Schaffner says.

Even if you wear your shoes inside and then lie down on the carpet afterwards, you should be safe, according to Amesh Adalja, MD, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. “There is much less transmission in these types of circumstances — this is not how diseases spread,” he explains. 

Although shoes may not play a large role in the spread of coronavirus, taking off your shoes when you get home is a smart choice on any given day to avoid tracking in dirt and other nasties from the outside world. Get more tips for a healthy home here.

11. Can you pick up coronavirus from pet fur?

Though some animals have tested positive for COVID-19, Schaffner says not to worry about contracting it from pet fur (or even if your dog licks you). The primary source of contracting coronavirus is through an infected person’s saliva or mucus. Adalja agrees, saying, “[Pets] are not a major risk or route of transmission.” 

It is prudent to consider your pet’s fur like any other surface. Dr. Elena Villanueva, DC, functional medicine expert in Texas adds, “Viruses can essentially spread on any surface, including clothes or the skin of another person and the fur of a pet. This comes back to basic hygiene and making sure to wash your hands after playing with your pets — not just because of viruses, but because of the other illness that can be spread by our lovable dogs and cats.”

12. How long does the virus live on surfaces?

As of right now, research shows that the virus lingers the longest on metal and plastic surfaces. According to a study by the New England Medical Journal, it can be detected on plastic and metal between three and seven days, on glass for four days and on cardboard for 24 hours. Yet exponential decay has been found in the potency of the virus on these surfaces over time. As for clothes, a study from The Lancet shows that after two days, the virus could not be detected.


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13. What's the right way to remove and wash a mask?

Masks are a direct barrier, keeping virus particles from landing on your nose and mouth and being breathed in. 

To properly remove a mask, begin by washing your hands, the CDC suggests. Then take the bottom strap of the mask up and over your head without touching the front of the mask, then the top strap of the mask up and over your head. Throw the whole mask away (if disposable) or immediately put in the washing machine. Finish with washing your hands again.

Wash cloth masks after every use in your washing machine with the warmest water possible, a detergent that can kill viral particles and tumble dry masks in the dryer on high. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), water should be at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The American Chemistry Council compiled a list of products and disinfectants (including detergents) that can be used to clean surfaces against COVID-19.

14. Are places with warmer climate safer?

According to the WHO, evidence shows that the coronavirus can be transmitted in all areas regardless of hot weather or humidity. Can sunlight "kill" the virus? Adalja stops short of saying it kills the virus, but concedes that “UV radiation decreases the viability. It’s not a very hardy virus in that heat does affect it.” 

And while transmission outside may be reduced during summer months, we can’t rely on that, Schaffner says — especially when you take into account variables like air conditioning in buildings. Little is known about the effect air conditioning can play a role in transmission. After there was an outbreak associated with a restaurant in China, it was thought that the air conditioning unit in the restaurant may have influenced transmission. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but Adalja says, “I don't believe this is representative of how the virus spreads. It doesn’t play a major role. We'd be in a very different situation right now if that were the case.”

15. Should I skip my regular checkups even once doctors’ offices open?

Many non-essential medical offices are closed right now, but Dr. Heather Kunen, DDS, MS, co-founder of Beam Street says dentists will begin to see their patients again for more routine procedures as the country starts to reopen in the coming weeks. "Dentists are working closely with the ADA to bring offices up to the new disinfection standards and protocols in order to create the safest possible environment for patients and staff," she notes. 

Kunen recommends patients call their providers for proper guidance on when to come in for non-essential visits on an individual basis. “Healthy patients who are scheduled for routine six-month checkups should wait another month or so before seeing their dentists in order to avoid unnecessary exposure.”

16. Does the virus survive in water?

With summer around the corner, you may be dreaming about a dip in pool. You’re in luck. “Swimming is not a concern,” says Adalja. “This is not a waterborne infection — there’s not going to be transmission in the water.” There is potential for transmission from shared surfaces surrounding the water, such as pool chairs and tables, so it’s still important to maintain social distancing and practice good hand hygiene while visiting a pool. 


For more coronavirus coverage from THE WELL, go here.

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