It’s a quirk of human nature that we touch our eyes, noses and mouths all day long. It’s also a major way we pick up infections like coronavirus.

Want to improve your chance of staying healthy? Stop touching your face!

One of the more difficult challenges in public health has been to teach people to wash their hands frequently and to stop touching the facial mucous membranes — the eyes, nose and mouth, all entry portals for the new coronavirus and many other germs.

“Scratching the nose, rubbing your eyes, leaning on your chin and your fingers go next to your mouth — there’s multiple ways we do it,” said Dr. Nancy C. Elder, a professor of family medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland who has studied face touching among doctors and clinic staff members. “Everybody touches their face, and it’s a difficult habit to break.”

As communities prepare for the spread of coronavirus around the globe, the primary advice from health officials is for people to wash their hands. But a number of health researchers say the public health message also should include a more forceful warning about face touching.

“The C.D.C. and W.H.O. still say something like ‘avoid’ touching your eyes, nose and mouth,” said Dr. William P. Sawyer, a family physician in Sharonville, Ohio, and creator of HenrytheHand.com, which promotes hand and face hygiene. “The advice should be ‘absolutely do not touch them!’ If you never touch your facial mucous membranes, you’re less likely to be sick again from any viral respiratory infection.”

To understand why hand hygiene and face touching can make a meaningful difference during a pandemic, consider how a virus can spread. 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. The next people who press the same buttons or touch a surface pick up the virus on their hands, then scratch their noses or rub their eyes.

 

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