How is coronavirus spread? How to stop touching your face to prevent infection

One study discovered people touched their faces 23 times per hour. Here's how to stop.
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/ Source: TODAY

Stop touching your face. It’s a mantra during any flu season, but especially now as the new coronavirus is raising fears about a pandemic.

Easier said than done.

“It’s very hard,” Joshua Klapow, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of public health at The University of Alabama at Birmingham, told TODAY about the habit.

“It’s a very unconscious thing.”

Researchers studying this behavior have found people touch their faces all the time. One study involving 249 randomly selected people in public places in the U.S. and Brazil found they touched their faces an average of 3.6 times per hour.

Another study, observing 26 medical students at an Australian university, discovered they touched their faces 23 times per hour — that’s a touch almost every two minutes or so.

Almost half of the face touches, 44%, involved contact with a mucous membrane, including the mouth, nose and eyes. That’s worrisome because those are pathways for bacteria and viruses to enter the body.

The pattern is simple: People deposit germs on door knobs, rails, light switches, and then when others touch those objects, their fingers will be contaminated by those infectious bugs.

“Every time you are touching these surfaces, you are picking up 30-50% of the organisms that are on those surfaces,” said Charles Gerba, professor of microbiology and environmental sciences at The University of Arizona.

That’s why the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are both pleading with people to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

“Touching your face after touching contaminated surfaces or sick people is one of the ways the #coronavirus can be transmitted,” tweeted Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO.

That includes avoiding rubbing your eyes. The new coronavirus particles have been found in eye secretions and two recent reports suggest the virus can cause conjunctivitis, the American Academy of Ophthalmology said Tuesday.

So how do you prevent your hands from becoming the “vector for the transmission” for COVID-19, the flu and other respiratory diseases? Frequent and proper hand washing is key.

Experts also offered these tips:

1. Create visual cues or reminders in as many places as possible

The goal is to find a way to make a behavior that’s automatic more conscious.

Set a repeated alert on your phone, perhaps every hour, that says “Don’t touch face,” Klapow advised.

Put a sticky note with the same reminder on your work computer, bathroom mirror, in the car and any other place you’re going to be for a long period of time, he noted.

It sounds quirky, but it’s a key way to overcome a habit that’s so unconscious. “If we’re not reminded over and over, we’ll keep doing it,” Klapow said.

2. Practice with a scarf over your face

Healthy people don’t need to wear face masks, but wearing something similar to a mask on your face can help you realize just how often you’re touching your nose and mouth.

“There’s something about having something over your face like a scarf that will remind you not to touch your face,” said Dr. Kelli Harding, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York.

While it’s cold out, you could pull up your scarf a bit higher over your face to remind you to keep your hands away, she said.

3. Adorn your fingers

Wearing cotton gloves around the house or placing small strips of tape on your fingertips can make the sensation of touching your face much different than usual, alerting you to the behavior.

4. Park those idle hands in a safe place

During meetings, sit on your hands or hold them in your lap, fingers interlaced, to avoid the temptation to touch your face.

5. Record yourself

Set up your phone so that it records you for a while as you’re watching TV or working at your computer, then watch the footage and count the number of times you touched your face. It could be a wake-up call.

6. Practice good self-care

Being well rested, having a clear cognitive state and keeping stress levels in check will not only boost your immune system, but also allow you to be more cognizant of not touching your face, Klapow said.

That means getting enough sleep — “the super immune-boosting remedy” — and practicing slow deep breathing for a few minutes several times a day, he noted.

And remember the mantra: Stop touching your face.