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Scientific Brief: SARS-CoV-2 Transmission

SARS-CoV-2 Transmission
Updated May 7, 2021

COVID-19 Science Briefs provide a summary of the scientific evidence used to inform specific CDC guidance and recommendations. The Science Briefs reflect the scientific evidence, and CDC’s understanding of it, on a specific topic at the time of the Brief’s publication. Though CDC seeks to update Science Briefs when and as appropriate, given ongoing changes in scientific evidence, an individual Science Brief might not reflect CDC’s current understanding of that topic. All Science Briefs are catalogued on this Science Briefs web page as historic reference materials.

Page First Published May 7, 2021 | View Page Updates

SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted by exposure to infectious respiratory fluids

The principal mode by which people are infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is through exposure to respiratory fluids carrying infectious virus. Exposure occurs in three principal ways: (1) inhalation of very fine respiratory droplets and aerosol particles, (2) deposition of respiratory droplets and particles on exposed mucous membranes in the mouth, nose, or eye by direct splashes and sprays, and (3) touching mucous membranes with hands that have been soiled either directly by virus-containing respiratory fluids or indirectly by touching surfaces with virus on them.

People release respiratory fluids during exhalation (e.g., quiet breathing, speaking, singing, exercise, coughing, sneezing) in the form of droplets across a spectrum of sizes.1-9 These droplets carry virus and transmit infection.

  • The largest droplets settle out of the air rapidly, within seconds to minutes.
  • The smallest very fine droplets, and aerosol particles formed when these fine droplets rapidly dry, are small enough that they can remain suspended in the air for minutes to hours.

Infectious exposures to respiratory fluids carrying SARS-CoV-2 occur in three principal ways (not mutually exclusive):

  1. Inhalation of air carrying very small fine droplets and aerosol particles that contain infectious virus. Risk of transmission is greatest within three to six feet of an infectious source where the concentration of these very fine droplets and particles is greatest.
  2. Deposition of virus carried in exhaled droplets and particles onto exposed mucous membranes (i.e., “splashes and sprays”, such as being coughed on). Risk of transmission is likewise greatest close to an infectious source where the concentration of these exhaled droplets and particles is greatest.
  3. Touching mucous membranes with hands soiled by exhaled respiratory fluids containing virus or from touching inanimate surfaces contaminated with virus.

The risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection varies according to the amount of virus to which a person is exposed

Once infectious droplets and particles are exhaled, they move outward from the source. The risk for infection decreases with increasing distance from the source and increasing time after exhalation. Two principal processes determine the amount of virus to which a person is exposed in the air or by touching a surface contaminated by virus:

  1. Decreasing concentration of virus in the air as larger and heavier respiratory droplets containing virus fall to the ground or other surfaces under the force of gravity and the very fine droplets and aerosol particles that remain in the airstream progressively mix with, and become diluted within, the growing volume and streams of air they encounter. This mixing is not necessarily uniform and can be influenced by thermal layering and initial jetting of exhalations.
  2. Progressive loss of viral viability and infectiousness over time influenced by environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and ultraviolet radiation (e.g., sunlight).

Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from inhalation of virus in the air farther than six feet from an infectious source can occur

With increasing distance from the source, the role of inhalation likewise increases. Although infections through inhalation at distances greater than six feet from an infectious source are less likely than at closer distances, the phenomenon has been repeatedly documented under certain preventable circumstances.10-21 These transmission events have involved the presence of an infectious person exhaling virus indoors for an extended time (more than 15 minutes and in some cases hours) leading to virus concentrations in the air space sufficient to transmit infections to people more than 6 feet away, and in some cases to people who have passed through that space soon after the infectious person left. Per published reports, factors that increase the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection under these circumstances include:

  • Enclosed spaces with inadequate ventilation or air handling within which the concentration of exhaled respiratory fluids, especially very fine droplets and aerosol particles, can build-up in the air space.
  • Increased exhalation of respiratory fluids if the infectious person is engaged in physical exertion or raises their voice (e.g., exercising, shouting, singing).
  • Prolonged exposure to these conditions, typically more than 15 minutes.

Prevention of COVID-19 transmission

The infectious dose of SARS-CoV-2 needed to transmit infection has not been established. Current evidence strongly suggests transmission from contaminated surfaces does not contribute substantially to new infections. Although animal studies22-24 and epidemiologic investigations25 (in addition to those described above) indicate that inhalation of virus can cause infection, the relative contributions of inhalation of virus and deposition of virus on mucous membranes remain unquantified and will be difficult to establish. Despite these knowledge gaps, the available evidence continues to demonstrate that existing recommendations to prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission remain effective. These include physical distancing, community use of well-fitting masks (e.g., barrier face coverings, procedure/surgical masks), adequate ventilation, and avoidance of crowded indoor spaces. These methods will reduce transmission both from inhalation of virus and deposition of virus on exposed mucous membranes.  Transmission through soiled hands and surfaces can be prevented by practicing good hand hygiene and by environmental cleaning.

Summary of Updates


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