If you're serious about staying healthy in these viral times, medical experts have some strong advice for you:
Stop touching your face.
No scratching. No rubbing. And certainly, no picking.
Germs love it when we do that. And, as the coronavirus disease known as COVID-19 ratchets up fears of a global pandemic, ground zero for stemming that tide may be your face.
That's because a human face is, literally, full of holes.
"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," Nancy C. Elder, a family medicine professor at Oregon Health and Science University, tells The New York Times. "Everybody touches their face, and it's a difficult habit to break."
Indeed, you might be resting your chin on a hand as you read this. Or rubbing an eye in disbelief. But consider where that hand has gone before. Maybe, like countless people before you, it gripped the railing of an escalator. Or pushed a button in the elevator. And now, you're conveniently giving those germs a lift to the top floor — where every door leads to the human interior.
A virus like the one that causes COVID-19 lives for that, essentially because the nose, mouth and eyes are the best means for a virus to latch on to our mucus membranes. Now, you might wonder why that should be a problem. After all, mucus — comprising mostly water, along with fats, salt and immune cells — is actually a protective barrier.
As Greta Friar notes in MIT Scope, powerful proteins called mucins, "form a powerful sticky mesh, like a glue trap that the invading microbes get stuck in, preventing them from moving any farther into the body. Then antibodies, immune cells, antimicrobial proteins, and bacteria-infecting viruses contained in mucus can kill the pathogens or isolate them to prevent them from building up."
Pandemic experts telling you to stop touching your face is a great way to find out that you LOVE touching your face. Can’t get enough of it— Patrick Monahan (@pattymo) February 28, 2020
Mucus is the body's most stalwart defender against germs. But the nose and mouth need it most because, unlike the skin, they're also left vulnerable and open to the world.
If you give enough bacteria an easy ride to the mucous membranes, they're eventually going to break through that gooey quarantine — and make their way to the internal organs, also covered in mucus, where they can really wreak havoc. It's not only the new coronavirus you have to worry about; respiratory viruses like the flu, and other ill-meaning germs, are all literally itching to get to your nose.
How to stop touching your face
So the obvious advice: Stop giving them a hand in getting there.
"The CDC and WHO still say something like 'avoid' touching your eyes, nose and mouth," William P. Sawyer, an Ohio physician, tells the Times. "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."
But how exactly do you stop yourself from touching your own face?
The New York Times suggests keeping a box of tissues handy so if you feel the urge to rub, scratch or itch, grab a tissue as a barrier between your hand and your face.
It also might work to keep your hands occupied with a stress ball or lace them together in your lap. Just be sure to sanitize the stress ball often.
And be more aware of what triggers you to reach for your face. If it's dry eyes, use moisturizing drops. Using scented lotion or soap will make you more aware of your hands when they get near your face.
Sometimes wearing glasses will make it harder to rub your eyes and wearing makeup will make you less likely to want to touch your face so you don't mess it up.
(DISCLOSURE: This writer may have unconsciously twiddled an ear, stroked his chin and rubbed his nose in the process of producing this post.)
And keep washing those hands
Certainly washing your hands, or using hand sanitizer in a pinch, goes a long way toward keeping germs at bay. But who washes their hands so fervently after touching anything anyone else has touched?
Let's face it. We'll never completely cure our hands of their wandering ways. But in times of coronavirus, we can certainly be more conscious of all the times we do it. To stand a chance of staving off a virus, our body's natural defenses only require us to meet them halfway.
The nose, for example, is chock-full of exosomes — a brilliant, swarm-style defense against marauding germs and bacteria. But it's hard for a nose to keep germs at arm's length if our grubby fingers are so frequently nearby.
The same goes for your mouth. It's a wonderfully convenient way to get food and beverages into the body. But for heaven's sake, stop licking your fingers.
And really, we shouldn't have to tell you again, but just stop touching your face. (We know it's hard.)
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in March 2020.