With the outbreak of Covid-19, health care professionals are urging people to regularly refrain from touching their face. Is that too much to ask?
There’s no question it’s easier said than done.
According to a 2015 study in the American Journal of Infection Control, people touch their faces more than 20 times an hour on average. About 44 percent of the time, it involves contact with the eyes, nose, or mouth.
From picking up objects to turning doorknobs, we’re constantly touching surfaces contaminated with pathogens. These pathogens can be picked up by our hands and get into the body through mucous membranes on the face — eyes, nose, and mouth — that act as pathways to the throat and lungs.
The coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is believed to be spread mostly by inhaling droplets released when an infected individual coughs or sneezes. But these droplets can also land on surfaces that we touch with our hands.
“Some pathogens can last for about nine days on surfaces, so we are constantly coming in contact with potential pathogens that can cause an infection,” said Jennifer Hanrahan, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Toledo Medical Center.
All of which explains why it makes sense for health officials to recommend that people try to avoid touching their faces. But as anyone who has consciously tried to do so knows, it’s hard.
Touching your face is an act that most people perform without thinking, explained Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California.
“Whether it is something intrinsic to our species or a learned behavior, we continue to repeat it even if we intend to or not,” she said.
According to Wood, face touching is a behavior that is triggered for a number of reasons. While some people do it to express their emotions, others touch their face in a discussion to make a point. Over time, they form a habit that continues to get repeated unless it is consciously broken.
Experts say one way to break the cycle is to simply make it more difficult to touch your face.
“If people are to wear gloves and glasses, they are less likely to touch their face,” said Wood.
Previous outbreaks, such as SARS, have shown the importance of washing hands regularly and not touching the face with them.
A study published late last year on hand hygiene and the global spread of disease through air transportation found that if people wash their hands while at the airport, the spread of a pandemic could be curbed by up to 69 percent. The same research group previously found only an estimated 20 percent of people have clean hands while at airports.
Christos Nicolaides, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT and lead author of the study, said little things really could make a difference in restricting the spread of coronavirus, and an increase in the number of people with clean hands would have a significant impact on slowing it.
“Big airports around the world, such as London Heathrow, see thousands of people in a day,” he said. “So small tasks like hand washing can affect the global spread of the virus.”