We all do it. We touch our faces countless times every day. An itchy nose, tired eyes, wiping your mouth with the back of your hand are all things we do without a second thought.
However, touching your face can significantly increase the risk of infection with flu or cold viruses, but especially the new coronavirus.
Your mouth and eyes are areas where viruses can enter the body most easily, and all it takes is touching them with a finger already carrying an infection.
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Two ways to transmit an infection
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source, the new coronavirus, also called SARS-CoV-2, is transmitted from person to person, like many other respiratory infections.
This includes by respiratory droplets produced when someone sneezes and inhaled into the lungs of others, and by touching a virus-contaminated surface and using that hand to touch your eyes or mouth.
While we can easily avoid being around someone who’s obviously sick, or take precautions against airborne viruses using a mask, avoiding the virus when it’s on a surface is almost impossible.
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We touch our faces all the time
Scientists researching this behavior find that people are constantly touching their faces.
In one 2008 study trusted Source, 10 subjects were each observed alone in an office environment for 3 hours. Researchers found they touched their faces an average of 16 times per hour.
Another study from 2015Trusted Source observed 26 medical students at a university in Australia to discover they touched their faces 23 times per hour. Almost half of the face touches involved the mouth, nose, or eyes, which are the easiest pathways for viruses and bacteria to enter our bodies.
Even medical professionals, who should know better, were found to touch their faces an average of 19 times in 2 hours while being inconsistent about observing proper hand hygiene.
“When actively working, people will often shake their foot, play with their hair, or in these instances, touch their faces. It certainly helps to know when you are most vulnerable to such activities and try to stay aware, during the meeting, or phone call, or while engrossed in work,” Dr. Alex Dimitriu, double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and founder of Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine, in Menlo Park, California, told Healthline.
Handwashing is key
So, we take precautions like washing our handsTrusted Source often and using at least 20 seconds to do so. But this can only help if we also avoid touching our faces, as there’s no way of knowing when you’ve picked up a tiny, and potentially deadly, passenger.
According to the CDC, effective handwashing consists of five simple steps:
However, we touch our faces so often that the odds of recontaminating our hands between washings are extremely high. All it takes is touching a doorknob or similar surface and you’re in danger of infection again.
“A new ring, jewelry, or even a rubber band around the wrist can serve as a reminder to increase awareness of the hands, and ideally to remember to not touch your face,” said Dimitriu. “Something needs to be different, however, to encourage ‘different’ and nonautomatic behavior.”
It’s a habit you can break
Zachary Sikora, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern Medicine Huntley Hospital in Huntley, Illinois, offered the following tips to avoid touching your face during the coronavirus outbreak.
“Be mindful about your intention to keep your hands away from your face. Just a brief pause can help you be more aware of what you’re doing with your hands,” he said.
He added that it also helps to place reminders like Post-it notes in your home or office so you can see them and remember you want to keep your hands away from your face.
“Keep your hands busy. If you’re at home watching TV, try folding laundry, sort through mail, or hold something in your hands,” Sikora explained, adding that even a tissue will do, as long as it reminds you to keep your hands away from your face.
He also recommended using a scented hand sanitizer or a scented hand soap to help remind yourself to keep hands away from your face. The smell will draw your attention to the location of your hands.
If you’re in a meeting or sitting in a class, he recommended lacing your fingers together and placing them in your lap.
Finally, if you know you habitually touch your face, Sikora said wearing gloves can be an effective physical reminder.
“You can wear gloves when you’re out in public and most likely to be exposed by touching surfaces that have the virus,” said Sikora. “Then remove them when you get to your destination. It may be unusual, but wearing gloves at home can also help you break the habit of touching your face.”
The bottom line
Your eyes, nose, and mouth are the easiest paths for a virus-like SARS-CoV-2 to enter the body.
All it takes is touching these areas with your hands after you’ve come in contact with the disease on a surface you touched. No matter how frequently you wash your hands, it’s not often enough to prevent passing an infection into your system. The best preventive measure is to avoid touching your face as much as possible.
Experts say that using some simple methods will help you break this habit. These include using scented hand soap or sanitizer to increase awareness of where your hands are and keeping your hands in your lap during meetings.