According to a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Infection Control, participants touched their faces an average of 23 times per hour and, of those touches, 44% involved contact with a mucous membrane. When it comes to COVID-19 prevention and mitigation, this human tendency can be problematic. COVID-19 is transmitted when respiratory droplets containing viable virus are expelled from an infected individual and subsequently enter the body of another individual. Experts agree that this transfer usually occurs when an infected person expels respiratory droplets (through coughing, sneezing, speaking, singing, etc.) and a nearby person inhales the invisible pathogens. However, transmission likely also occurs, though to a lesser degree, when individuals touch surfaces where infected droplets have landed and then inadvertently infect themselves by transferring the virus from their contaminated hand to a mucous membrane. The eyes, nose, and mouth are all mucous membranes, and they can be thought of as viral portals of entry. This is one reason why hand washing is so crucial to infection prevention efforts. It also explains why public health officials continue to urge you to avoid touching your face.
Let’s face it: “don’t touch your face” is a particularly tough rule to follow. Completely abstaining from touching one’s face is an unlikely goal. Instead of aiming for the unattainable, we recognize that each instance in which we avoid touching our face is a success, because it removed that singular opportunity for infection. We try to get better each day, becoming progressively more mindful and thereby incrementally reducing our personal risk.
Here are some tips and tricks for breaking the habit of face touching:
• Pay attention. Most of us subconsciously touch our faces. So, to reduce the frequency of this habit, make a special effort to notice when you’ve touched your face. Was there a sensation or a circumstance that led you to touch your face? Where were you, what were you doing, and how were you feeling? You just may notice a pattern or a trigger. And that is a good thing because awareness is a jumping off point for behavior change.
• Learn your triggers and circumvent them. For example, if your glasses frequently slide down and you find yourself touching your face to push them back into place, have your optometrist adjust the nose pads or use a pair of ear hooks to keep them where they belong. If seasonal or other allergies make your eyes or skin itch or your nose run, make an effort to avoid known allergens, when possible, and consider talking to your doctor or pharmacist about whether certain medications (antihistamines) may help. Make modifications to an ill-fitting mask so that it doesn’t require frequent adjustments. Many problems have simple solutions if you take the time to consider them.
• Develop competing responses. As you become more aware of your face-touching behavior, you’ll begin to recognize moments in which you’d like to touch your face (versus just doing so subconsciously). When you feel the urge to touch your face unnecessarily, immediately do something else that occupies your hands. Twiddle your thumbs, clench and unclench your fists, or wash or sanitize your hands! Competing response is a proven behavior therapy technique with wide ranging applications from dermatology (helping patients to cope with chronic itching) to clinical psychology.
• Wear a mask when away from home. Universal mask wearing by all citizens when in public places is strongly encouraged by our state and county and is a COVID-19 mitigation measure now firmly rooted in scientific evidence. Incidentally, masks can also be a helpful reminder not to touch one’s face.
• When touching your face is unavoidable, make sure your hands are clean! If that is not an option, cover your finger with a clean tissue to touch your face.