Touching the face frequently is a major way of picking up infections like coronavirus
Statesman Report
PESHAWAR: The novel coronavirus has triggered panic around the world, as it spread from Wuhan’s wet markets to Europe, Asia, America and now, the Middle East. Millions around the world have sprung into action, taking precautionary measures to ensure they do not catch the novel virus. Doctors and researches have stated that apart from washing your hands thoroughly, it is also advised to stop touching your face if you want to stay healthy.
“Scratching the nose, rubbing your eyes, leaning on your chin and your fingers go next to your mouth — there are multiple ways we do it,” said Dr. Nancy C. Elder, a professor of family medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. Elder has studied face touching habits among doctors and clinical staff, saying that it was a difficult habit to break and that everyone does it.
Dr. William P. Sawyer, a family physician in Sharonville, Ohio, and creator of HenrytheHand.com, which promotes hand and face hygiene, said that the WHO and CDC should tell people ‘absolutely not to touch’ their eyes, nose, and mouth. “If you never touch your facial mucous membranes, you’re less likely to be sick again from any viral respiratory infection,” he said.
To better understand this logic, let’s consider the example of a person infected with the coronavirus, traveling in an elevator. The man sneezes and coughs, before proceeding to touch the buttons on the inside and outside the elevator. He may leave the elevator, but his sneeze droplets remain on the elevator’s buttons and so do the germs. The person to come after him will touch the buttons. The germs get transferred onto the other man’s hands and he proceeds to touch his face or rub his eyes.
Mucus membranes
and the T-zones
Mary-Louise McLaws, professor of epidemiology, health care infection and infectious diseases control at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said that the eyes, nose, and mouth were like a “portal into the body for a virus” like Covid-19 or SARS. “I was in a conference yesterday watching people, and in just about two minutes I counted a dozen times that I saw someone touching mucous membranes,” she said.
She said that touching the face, scratching the nose and rubbing the eyes were very common practices and that “the general community needs to be aware of how often they are touching their face”.
An interesting source to gauge how frequently we touch our mucus membranes is a study conducted by Dr McLaws, the senior author of a 2015 study on how many times we touch our faces. Researchers filmed students attending a lecture and counted back to the number of times they touched their faces, on average. It was observed that a person, on average, touches his face 23 times and nearly half of them were to the eyes, nose, and mouth — what researchers refer to call as the ‘T-zone’.
“I was really surprised,” Dr. McLaws said. “By touching your mucous membranes, you’re giving a virus 11 opportunities every hour if you’ve touched something infectious.”
How high is the risk of picking up a virus?
The risk of picking up a virus depends on many factors which include the temperature and humidity, the type of virus, how long did the infected person spend in an area, and whether or not the surface was nonporous.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) does not know for how long the new coronavirus survives on a surface. However, it behaves like other coronaviruses, which according to a recent study from the Journal of Hospital Infection, found that similar coronaviruses have survived on surfaces for as long as nine days in ideal conditions.
That’s far longer than the flu virus, which typically can survive under ideal conditions only up to 24 hours on hard surfaces. Public Health England says that, based on studies of other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS, “the risk of picking up a live virus from a contaminated surface” under real-life conditions “is likely to be reduced significantly after 72 hours.”
The virus will survive the longest on nonporous surfaces made of metal and plastics such as doorknobs, counters, and railings. It will die on tissues and fabrics and once on your hands, it loses its potency.
A record of the 2003 SARS infections shows that surface contact contributes to the spreading of viruses as well. A doctor in Hong Kong left a trail of viruses in a hotel room on the ninth floor. Seven other people were infected by him, who went on to spread the SARS virus elsewhere. He was known as a “super spreader”, enabling the virus to spread to an estimated 4,000 people.
There is good news, though. Washing your hands frequently makes a huge difference in lowering the risk of viruses getting transferred. During the SARS epidemic, hand-washing reduced the risk of transmission by 30 to 50 percent. However, according to Dr Sawyer, not touching your face is the main habit to break as “your hands are only clean until the next surface you touch”.
Break the habit
However, it isn’t easy to break the habit of touching your face. A lot of people complain that as soon as they think about not touching their faces, their eyes start twitching and their noses start itching. German researchers came to the conclusion (by analyzing the brain’s electrical activity before and after face touching) that we do it to relieve stress and manage our emotions.
Break the habit of touching your face by using tissues if you feel the urge to scratch your nose or rub your eyes. Women are less likely to rub their faces when compared to men as they wear makeup as they are afraid of smudging it. Treat itchy or dry patches on your skin with moisturizers or eye drops to ensure you don’t have to touch your mucus membranes.
Wear glasses and gloves. While glasses create a barrier for you to touch your eyes, gloves are a reminder that you can’t touch your face as frequently (though they can be contaminated too yet viruses live shorter on fabrics).
Wipe your desks, phones and the surfaces you come into contact with frequently. Wash hands regularly and thoroughly, especially after touching community surfaces.