When you sneeze, how long can germs live outside the body?

Dear Matthew:

Of course, I don't have any germs (and if I did, they'd be good for people), but when one of those people sneezes, exactly how long do their germs live outside their bodies, more or less? God only knows what they could do to you if you came in contact.

-- Disgusted but Curious, La Jolla

Mighty glad to see the us-and-them game now includes not only race, religion, politics, sexual preference, gender, net worth, ZIP code, and Internet service provider, but also microbes. My germs can beat up your germs. My Child Was Lice-Free Student of the Month at Gotbucks Elementary. (Though I've omitted it, Dis was kind enough to give an example of exactly who those people are. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Grandma Alice if you feel cheated out of that bit of wisdom.) Say, Dis, maybe we can lobby for a decontamination checkpoint on Ardath Road -- just in case any of those people decide to spend a day at the cove.

If you are sneezed upon by one of those people -- depending on where, exactly, the virus-laden spew lands on you -- their low-class, Third World, down-and-out, mentally ill, welfare-collecting, bedroll-carrying, arrest-warrant-dodging, bus-riding, definitely-here-illegally, have-way-too-many-kids, boom-box-blasting, shopping-cart-pushing bugs can survive at least a couple of hours. Of course, if you are sneezed upon by a Rancho Santa Fe matron, the answer's the same. But I trust the CC&Rs prohibit that activity.

Medical researchers seem to have sneezed on pretty much every kind of surface to see how long cold-causing viruses can survive. A warm, damp area is a vacation in the tropics; they can thrive for a day, perhaps longer, in skin folds, under fingernails, in creases in your palms. Two to three hours is tops on faucet handles, doorknobs, credit cards, buttons on an ATM machine, telephones, money -- most hard, dry surfaces. (Because a large working vocabulary is a definite sign of good breeding, remember that such surfaces are known in the doctoring biz as fomites.)

Should the unthinkable occur and the viruses reach your mucous membranes (nose, eyes, mouth, or the like), well, the microbial partying will be like New Orleans at Mardi Gras. The most likely way for those germs to make you ill is for you to touch an infected surface (e.g., a handshake, in your case unlikely), then touch your eyes, mouth, etc. Then when you recover, you can reinfect yourself with your own damp, germy toothbrush. Other types of viruses might have a longer shelf life, but the same principles apply.

Well, Dis, I'm sure by now you're in a swoon on a poolside lounge, overcome by the horror of it all. So I'll end with a bit of good news, at least for viruses spread by the aerosol method. Germ-laden sneeze goo is relatively heavy, as airborne particles go. You'll likely be safe if you stay at least four feet away from those people. No problem, you say?

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