We have all been advised to protect ourselves against the spread of the deadly coronavirus by washing our hands and covering our mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
Then there is the tough one: Don’t touch your face. Almost everyone touches their face habitually but this activity has now become dangerous due to the current coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 7,000 people and affected over 180,000.
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Coronavirus spreads mainly through close contact with infected people, particularly via respiratory droplets produced when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus can also spread through contact with contaminated surfaces and this is the main reason we are being advised to avoid touching our faces.
Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and American Academy of Dermatology spokesperson tells Health it is possible to pick up COVID-19 after touching something an infected person touched, then touching your own nose, eyes, or mouth.
With this in mind, how do we avoid touching our faces so much?
Health experts say people should first try to identify the kinds of situations or experiences that move them to touch their face and act upon them.
We touch our faces for various reasons, either picking our nose, touching our eyelashes, trying to burst a pimple, among others. It’s very difficult to stop these sub-conscious behaviors but there’s a way out.
Gail Saltz, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine advises putting in place measures that will make it impossible for you to touch your face.
“I tell [people] to sit on their hands for a while to help break the habit,” she says. “It may take a while, but after a few weeks you really can break the habit of constantly touching your face.”
She says if that seems impossible, then bring in items that will help reduce the risk of infection.
“For instance, carry tissues at all times so you can wipe away tears or catch a sneeze or cough. Use your knuckles to touch an elevator button instead of your finger, and a paper towel to open a door instead of your hand,” she says.
“When it is a physical need like an itch, for example, we can build a substitute behavior,” says Michael Hallsworth, a behavioral scientist at Columbia University. “Use the back of the arm. You reduce the risk, even if it’s not an ideal solution.”
Other health experts say you can put a frequent reminder into your phone that will alert you every few minutes not to touch your face. As you keep seeing this message, you may soon get used to the idea of not touching your face.
Essentially, practice good hygiene and clean shared surfaces. And don’t forget to wash your hands often or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer while avoiding physical contact including shaking hands.