The new decade has brought along a SARS-like, pneumonia-causing coronavirus that’s already sickened at least 9,000 people and killed over 200 worldwide. If you’re scared about threats like the Wuhan virus, then there’s one very easy thing you can start doing for the sake of your health and others—stop touching your face!
When we rub our faces all willy nilly, we can contaminate our bodies with the potentially dangerous germs picked up from surfaces our hands recently touched. These fomites—another name for infectious surfaces or objects—can carry invisible bits of poo and snot left behind by a person careless about their hand washing.
And while, yes, you’ve probably been told not to touch your face since you’re a kid, it’s apparently wisdom that is often forgotten (including by this author).
A small study in 2015 estimated that people touch their face on average 23 times an hour, with a little less than half of these touches involving the “mucosal” areas of our face, like our mouth, nose, and eyes. Another study in 2013 found that people on public transit touch surfaces where germs could be located an average 3.3 times an hour, while also touching their mouths and noses an average 3.6 times an hour. These parts of our face are incidentally the perfect conduit for countless germs, including the new coronavirus, to enter and infect the body.
Currently, the Wuhan virus isn’t something to fear for people living in most of the world, including North America—but diseases like the flu are definitely here. In what might be considered a mild season in the U.S. this year, the flu virus has already sickened more than 19 million people, hospitalized over 180,000, and killed upwards of 10,000. It’s not just flu, either. Here’s a very short list of other diseases spreadable through face touching that sicken lots of Americans every single year:
- Hepatitis A
- The hundreds of viruses that cause the common cold
- Staph infections, including the highly resistant kind
- And last, but certainly not least, tapeworm cyst brain infections
Human nature being what it is, we can hardly expect people to stop touching their faces completely. But there’s plenty of good that can be done if we cut back on the habit and implement other ones, like frequent hand washing (with soap, for at least 20 seconds). A study in 2008 found, for instance, that people who reported rarely touching their faces were around 80 percent less likely to contract the seasonal flu compared to those with the highest levels of face-touching—odds that only got better if they also washed their hands a lot.
And while a face mask is unlikely to do much on its own for preventing any disease, including the new coronavirus, wearing one might at least remind you to keep your paws off your mug.
It’s a simple if mundane lesson to be learned, but one that will pay off no matter what happens with the Wuhan virus or any other emerging disease to come around, according to Robert Amler, a former chief medical officer at the CDC and dean of New York Medical College’s School of Health Sciences and Practice.
“There’s a lot of things about [the new coronavirus] we don’t really know. Meanwhile, things we do know is that people who are sick should not come to work or school; they should stay home. And people generally should wash their hands frequently and avoid touching their faces,” Amler told Gizmodo.