Coronavirus panic has set in.
My inbox is full of reminders to wash your hands sufficiently — for at least 20 seconds.
Although precautionary measures are important, there’s a lot missing from the directives.
Washing your hands isn’t enough
According to Dr. William Sawyer,
Your hands are only clean until the next surface you touch. When you reach for the door knob or hand railing, you’ve recontaminated your hand with something. If you touch your mucous membranes, then you could inoculate yourself inadvertently with that organism. If there is one behavior change that could prevent infection, it’s do not touch your T-zone.
The Things We Touch
Did you think to wipe down the handle of your shopping cart or basket in the supermarket before you touched them?
What about the banister as you walked up or down the subway stairs?
The chair you sat on when you pulled it out to sit on it?
Your yoga mat and other yoga props? The equipment at the gym?
Even if you wash your hands when you first come home, or get to your office, think about what you touched on your way to the sink.
The light switch when you walked into your home. The doorknob to the closet door. The hanger on which you hung your coat. The light switch to the bathroom.
What about the most likely places you’ll touch repeatedly during the day: your phone, keyboard, iPad, laptop, water bottle.
We touch things thousands of times a day.
What You Touch After the Germs
The bigger issue is that after touching these surfaces that may harbor the virus, we touch our face. Specifically, the openings where the mucus membranes live.
We touch our faces hundreds of times a day.
According to 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.”
This is a redundancy. Face touching is difficult to stop because it’s a habit — an unconscious response to a trigger.
Your Habits Are the Problem
Once again the problem is our habits.
The recommended steps to stay healthy fall into the category of behavior change: washing hands the right way, avoiding touching your face.
This is a difficult task.
All habits are hard to break because we are generally unaware of them. That’s what makes them habits. We touch our faces without being aware of it.
As I often say: it’s harder to break a habit than to create a habit.
Face-touching habits include:
Scratching the nose, rubbing your eyes, leaning on your chin, putting your fingers next to or in your mouth.
You almost certainly don’t realize how often you do this.
According to Mary-Louise McLaws, professor of epidemiology, health care infection and infectious diseases control at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia,
It is a very common practice. We rub our eyes, scratch our nose, touch our mouth — the general community needs to be aware of how often they are touching their face.
As she told The New York Times,
I was in a conference yesterday watching people, and in just about two minutes I counted a dozen times that I saw someone touching mucous membranes.
Dr. McLaws was the senior author of a 2015 study on face touching. The study observed medical students during a lecture. Over the course of an hour, they touched their faces an average of 23 times, with about half being on or near mucus membranes.
Consider also that you pick up your phone an average of 12 times an hour.
The New York Times reports that a virus will survive the longest on nonporous surfaces made of metal and plastics — including door knobs, counters, railings, and the germiest places of all: your phone, tablet, keyboard, and remote controls.
It doesn’t matter how well you wash your hands if you immediately go back to your dirty phone or keyboard and then touch your face.
And the likelihood is that this is exactly what you’re doing, without being aware that you’re doing it.
If you want to stay healthy, you’re gonna have to break some habits.