Coronavirus: Protect yourself inside and outside the home

Wash your hands, disinfect surfaces and avoid physical contact – even with family

Paying close attention to your personal hygiene remains the best way to protect yourself and other family members from catching and spreading the new coronavirus disease (also known as Covid-19) in Ireland, according to a leading virologist.

"There is no need to panic because the vast majority of people will have relatively mild disease, but as a society we must pay attention to highly vulnerable people," says Ultan Power, professor of molecular virology at Queen's University Belfast.

The Waterford-born virologist adds that people don't need to "live like hermits", but to keep as healthy as possible and be aware of transmission of Covid-19 in the home. "When people are at home, they often let down their guard in terms of personal hygiene, so it's very important to have responsible behaviour so that the risks of exposure to older and vulnerable people are limited. We are aware from reports from China that a lot of transmission happened in people's homes," says Power.

I advise people to keep their physical contact with anyone to a minimum. Stop shaking hands. Stop giving hugs

While most people are aware of keeping their distance (at least one metre) from anyone who is coughing or sneezing in public places, we are often more relaxed in our own homes. The virus doesn’t observe boundaries between domestic and public places, so all the same advice on thorough hand-washing and respiratory etiquette (sneezing or coughing into a paper tissue/crook of your elbow, disposing of the tissue and washing your hands afterwards) applies in our homes too.


Health authorities are advising people to avoid hugging, kissing and shaking hands in public spaces. “Clearly, shaking hands with someone who you are not sure has been exposed to the virus is a problem when the epidemic is taking off,” says Power. The HSE also advised religious congregations not to share the sign of peace by shaking the hands of those close to them in their church, not to use holy water fonts and not to share communal Communion vessels during the outbreak of Covid-19.

Avoid hugging and kissing

But should we also avoid hugging and kissing close family members too? Yes, people should keep physical contact to a minimum – especially if you are visiting an elderly relative, according to Greystones GP and lecturer in general practice at University College Dublin Dr Nicholas Breen. "I advise people to keep their physical contact with anyone to a minimum. Stop shaking hands. Stop giving hugs.

“Muslim women who don’t shake hands with men put their hand over their heart and incline slightly. It’s very elegant. We need some elegance in our approach to this.”

The first thing we should do when we come home is to go to the bathroom and wash our hands. Do this before peeing. Don't stop by the kitchen to eat or drink anything

Dr Breen also says that a family member who might have Covid-19 should eat separately (both people sitting far enough apart so that their outstretched arms don’t meet) and for the shortest time possible.

“The first thing we should do when we come home is to go to the bathroom and wash our hands. Do this before peeing. Don’t stop by the kitchen to eat or drink anything. And, I advise people not to share anything right now, whether they have the virus or not,” he says.

As the Covid-19 virus spreads throughout the population – as is now expected – maintaining high hygiene standards in our homes becomes more important to prevent one family member who might have contracted the virus from passing it to other family members.

The HSE recommends frequently touched objects and surfaces are disinfected regularly, which means keeping kitchen counter tops, door knobs, phones, keyboards, baths, toilets, sinks and other shared domestic spaces regularly cleaned and disinfected. A family member with a suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19 should not share glasses, cups or cutlery with other family members and should disinfect shared facilities such as toilets and showers after use. “They shouldn’t share anything in the home if they have the virus,” says Dr Breen.

It is considered highly unlikely the virus is passed on through food and there is no evidence of this happening so far. However, it is possible that infected food workers could introduce virus to the food they are working on by coughing and sneezing, or through hand contact, unless they strictly follow good personal hygiene practices.

The goal is to minimise and delay a big outbreak until early summer when the health system can cope with it better

The European Food Safety Authority scientist Marta Hugas says that “experiences from previous outbreaks of related coronaviruses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus [Sars-CoV] and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus [Mers-CoV], show that transmission through food consumption did not occur. At the moment, there is no evidence to suggest that coronavirus is any different in this respect.”

The virus should be killed by normal cooking temperatures.

Hand sanitisers

At this stage, most people will understand the importance of regular hand-washing – for at least 20 seconds – with soap and water. Using hand sanitisers with 60 per cent minimum alcohol content are the next best option. “Sanitisers with an alcohol content of over 60 per cent will dissolve the envelope around Covid-19, thus killing the virus. Soap will do the same thing,” says Power. The Covid-19 virus enters the body via mucous membranes such as the eyes, nose and mouth, so if you touch your face after thoroughly washing your hands, you are unlikely to give the virus a chance to take hold.

If you are in a public space – on a train, in a cafe – the most important thing to remember is to use a hand sanitiser after touching any shared surfaces. Handling money has a similar risk to contact with other materials – such as elevator buttons, door handles or bus poles – that are used by a large number of people.

And don't forget your phone. Apple has changed its advice on how its phones can be cleaned, accepting that disinfectant wipes can be used, after insisting for years that it was a bad idea. The new guidance on Apple's support page says people can "gently wipe the hard, nonporous surfaces," with 70 per cent isopropyl alcohol wipe.

“If someone with the infection has touched any of these surfaces, you may be exposed,” says Power, who suggests that now might be a good time for people to wear gloves with impermeable surfaces, such as leather gloves, when moving around in public spaces.

While many people have bought masks to prevent getting infected with Covid-19, the advice from health authorities remains that masks are only essential for people who have already been infected by Covid-19 so that they can protect others – by shielding their mouth and nose (and thus preventing the spread of infectious through droplets) from others.

Power adds that the main concern now for health authorities in the UK and Ireland is to delay the onset of widespread transmission for as long as possible as hospitals remain under pressure treating patients for the seasonal flu virus. “The goal is to minimise and delay a big outbreak until early summer when the health system can cope with it better,” he says.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment