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March 3, 2020

'Stop touching your face': Why it's so important—and so hard to do

Daily Briefing

    To help Americans avoid catching the new coronavirus, public health experts have a simple plea: Wash your hands and "stop touching your face," Tara Parker-Pope writes for the New York Times.

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    About the coronavirus epidemic

    Reports of the new coronavirus first surfaced in early December 2019 in Wuhan, China. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the main symptoms of the virus are fever and lesions in both lungs. Some patients also have reported difficulty breathing, WHO said.

    While the number of newly reported cases in China has slowed, the number of newly reported cases in other countries has surged over the past two weeks.

    In the United States, officials as of Monday had reported a total of 88 cases of the virus and two deaths linked to it. CDC noted that several U.S. patients with the virus—including patients in California, Oregon, and Washington—have no known connections to individuals who had traveled to countries affected by the virus or who had a suspected or confirmed case of the virus. That indicates the cases likely stemmed from so-called "community spread" of the virus in the United States.

    Just how often do we touch our face? Pretty often.

    In addition to advising people to wash their hands, health officials are emphasizing that people should keep their hands away from their face—a habit that's surprisingly hard to kick, Parker-Pope writes.

    Humans are the only animals, aside from gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees that touch their faces with "little or no awareness of the habit," according to Parker-Pope. According to researchers, we developed the habit as a way to relieve stress and contain our emotions.

    The T-zone is the most common place for people to touch, and it's home to three mucous membranes: the eyes, nose, and mouth, which serve as "entry portals" for viruses and germs, Parker-Pope writes.

    Mary-Louise McLaws, a professor at the University of New South Wales, authored a 2015 study that documented how often we engage in the habit. The researchers found a group of medical students in a lecture touched their faces an average of 23 times in one hour, and almost 50% of the touchers were to their "T-zone," which includes the eyes, nose, and mouth. Other studies that have followed office workers and primary care doctors show similar results.

    But even though touching your face ups your odds of getting sick, "it's a difficult habit to break," according to McLaws. In fact, many people say the more they try to refrain from touching their face, the more they feel the need to rub their eyes or scratch their nose, Parker-Pope reports.

     Is it really that important to stop touching your face? Health experts: Yes.

    To understand why touching your face is especially problematic during a viral outbreak, think about how viruses spread in the first place. For instance, consider what happens in an elevator: "An infected person rides in an elevator, touching buttons both outside and inside the elevator or maybe sneezing during the ride. When that person leaves, microscopic droplets containing the virus stay behind," Parker-Pope writes. The next people to get on the elevator could touch the same buttons and pick up the virus on their hands, and research shows those people are likely touch their T-zone multiple times in the next hour.

    "By touching your mucous membranes, you're giving a virus 11 opportunities every hour if you've touched something infectious," McLaws said.

    While scientists don't yet know how long the new coronavirus survives on surfaces, a study from the Journal of Hospital Infection found similar coronaviruses could survive on surfaces for up to nine days under certain conditions. "That's far longer than the flu virus, which typically can survive under ideal conditions only up to 24 hours," Parker-Pope writes. 

    Hand washing can reduce the risk of passing a virus from your hands to your T-zone, but even if your hands are clean, you should still try to break the face-touching habit, according to William Sawyer, a family physician in Sharonville, Ohio.

    "Your hands are only clean until the next surface you touch," he said (Parker-Pope, New York Times, 3/2).

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