(Matt McClain for The Washington Post)

Viruses can spread from a single doorknob to 40 to 60 percent of surfaces and people in a building in just a few hours, according to a new study.

Researchers put a tracer virus on one or two surfaces in a building (for example a doorknob or push plate) at the beginning of the day. And after two to four hours, the virus could be detected on a majority of commonly touched surfaces such as light switches, coffee pot handles, phones and computers.

"We actually put a virus on a push plate in an office building of 80 people, had three entrances, and within four hours it ended up on over half the people's hands, and it ended up on over half the surfaces that people touched in that building," said University of Arizona researcher Charles Gerba, who presented the study at the 54th Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy on Monday.

"What we really learned was the hand is quicker than the sneeze in the spread of disease," Gerba said during his presentation.

The alarming speed which which the virus goes from a surface to the hands of anyone -- workers and visitors in office buildings, schools, hotels and hospitals -- serves as an important reminder to wash hands and disinfect surfaces frequently. Viruses such as diarrhea, the flu and the common cold can cause illness when people have the viruses on their hands and then touch their faces, which they do about once every three to four minutes, according to Gerba.

Gerba said that hand washing, disinfecting wipes, and hand sanitizer use was found to significantly reduce the spread of a virus.

"Using disinfecting wipes containing quaternary ammonium compounds (QUATS) registered by EPA as effective against viruses like norovirus and flu, along with hand hygiene, reduced virus spread by 80 to 99 percent," he said.

Touch was found to spread the virus in places where people might least expect it. It wasn't the bathroom, but the break room that was a "hot spot" for virus spread.

"What's the first thing you do when you go to work? You get a cup of coffee. You want to be the first one in that coffee break room," Gerba said. "Every time you touch these surfaces you're picking up between 30 and 50 percent of the organisms who are on that surface."