COVID-19 is highly contagious and continues to spread around the United States and the globe. Because it is a new disease in humans, our immune systems had not previously developed any defenses against it. The availability of vaccines that protect against COVID-19 has changed that.
There are currently three vaccines available in the U.S. to prevent coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Vaccines help protect us by providing immunity without having to get sick. Medical experts around the globe continue actively researching potential vaccinations that may lessen or prevent illness from COVID-19. The National Institutes of Health provides the public with up-to-date information on several vaccines trials that have launched.
Until you are fully vaccinated and boosted (known as up-to-date), the best way to avoid severe illness is to avoid being exposed to the virus.
The virus is believed to spread primarily from person-to-person contact between people who are in close contact with each other (within about six feet). When an infected person coughs or sneezes respiratory droplets are released from the mouth and nose which may land in the mouth, nose or eyes of people nearby. Individuals who are infected but not showing symptoms may still spread COVID-19 to others.
COVID-19 seems to also spread by airborne transmission. These smaller respiratory droplets are exhaled when people breathe, talk or sing. Breathing in air when close to an infected person can cause COVID-19 illness. This type of transmission is more likely to occur in enclosed, indoor spaces with poor ventilation and when the infected person was breathing heavily, such as singing or exercising. Being in crowded, indoor restaurants, bars, fitness centers or movie theaters put you at higher risk for COVID-19.
While possible, it is less common that COVID-19 will spread through contact with contaminated surfaces, such as touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes.
Steps to protect yourself from infection
COVID-19 vaccines help protect you from getting seriously ill from COVID-19. Vaccines are readily available in most communities for everyone 5 years and older. Be sure you are up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines, including additional doses for immunocompromised and boosters when you are eligible.
If you are not up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines, to avoid being exposed to the virus, keep at least six feet from people who don’t live in your home when you are out in the community, especially crowded indoor places.
- People may choose to wear a mask at any time.
- Face coverings should be worn by everyone 2 years and older regardless of vaccination status in indoor public spaces in areas of high transmission. Face coverings should also be worn by those who have symptoms of COVID-19, received a positive COVID-19 test and were exposed to someone with COVID-19. CDC has a tool to help you understand the transmission levels in your community.Face masks should:
- Fit snugly against your face, covering your mouth, nose and chin
- Include a nose wire
- If you are using a cloth mask, it should have several layers of fabric to help stop more respiratory droplets.
- You may consider wearing a mask in public indoor spaces:
- If you or someone in your household is not up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations, including boosters.
- If you or someone in your household is at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness.
- For additional protection against COVID-19.
- To help prevent possible spread to others.
In general, you do not need to wear a mask in outdoor setting but should consider doing so in areas with high numbers of COVID-19 cases in crowded outdoor settings or when in close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated.
You should continue wearing a mask that covers your nose and mouth when it is required by law or rule — such as local business or workplace guidance or when using public transportation such as a city bus or riding in an airplane.
Scrub with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If you are unable to wash your hands, using hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol is a good alternative.
Be aware that indoor spaces should be properly ventilated with as much outdoor air as possible. Being outdoors and in spaces with good ventilation reduces the risk of the spread of COVID-19.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth—as it allows the germs on your hands to reach moist, porous surface tissue where the germs can enter your body and cause infection.
- Cough and sneeze into a tissue, or elbow if necessary. Then immediately dispose of the tissue and wash your hands.
If someone is sick or has tested positive for COVID-19, then you should disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as door handles, light switches, faucets and phones, often and with an approved disinfectant. If surfaces are dirty, first clean them using soap and water.
Stay home if you feel unwell and call your healthcare provider if you experience symptoms that could be COVID-19.
Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.
Page last updated: March 7, 2022