NEW YORK • Now that we know it is bad to touch our faces, how do we break a habit that most of us did not know we had?
Throughout the day, we touch a lot of surfaces – doorknobs, lift buttons, subway poles – where viruses, including the new coronavirus, can linger for days.
From there, microbes can piggyback on our fingertips to our noses, mouths or eyes – all of which are entry portals for the coronavirus, as well as other viruses and germs.
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“It’s a very difficult habit to break because we all do it and, oftentimes, we’re not even aware we’re doing it,” said Dr Vanessa Raabe, assistant professor in the department of medicine at NYU Langone Health, a premier medical centre in New York. Here are four tricks to help you stop doing so.
KEEP A BOX OF TISSUES HANDY
When you feel the urge to scratch an itch, rub your nose or adjust your glasses, grab a tissue and use that instead of your fingers.
If you feel you have to sneeze, but do not have a tissue handy, aim your sneeze into your elbow rather than your hand, say health experts.
Sneezing into your hand makes it more likely that you will pass your germs on to other people or objects around you.
Dr Raabe of NYU Langone Health offered this suggestion: “Be cognisant of triggers.”
Pause throughout the day to notice compulsive behaviour. Once you are more aware of when and why you are touching your face, addressing the root cause can be an effective solution. If you find yourself rubbing your eyes because they are dry, use moisturising drops. If you are using your hand as a chin-rest or to adjust your hair, be aware of that, she said.
Dr Justin Ko, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at Stanford Health, said he tells patients who wear contact lenses to consider wearing glasses instead, to discourage them from rubbing their eyes. “Similarly,” he added, “while masks are not very effective for preventing virus transmission, they can be quite helpful for providing a physical barrier against touching the nose or mouth”.
Putting Post-it notes around the house or on your desktop could also serve as helpful reminders.
KEEP YOUR HANDS BUSY
Keeping your hands occupied with a stress ball or other object can reduce instances of touching your face and minimise triggers, doctors say. And do not forget to regularly clean and sanitise that object.
If you do not have a stress ball to squeeze, mail to sort or laundry to fold, you could lace your hands together on your lap or find another way to actively engage them so that you are not bringing them to your face as much.
Using scented soap or lotion could help, said Dr Zach Sikora, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. When you bring your hands close to your face, that smell could make you more aware of your actions.
Of course, it is hard. US President Donald Trump has struggled with it too. “I haven’t touched my face in weeks! Been weeks,” he said at a meeting of airline chief executives last Wednesday. “I miss it.”
“My general advice would be that people should try to reduce their stress overall, as opposed to obsessively worrying about what they touch,” said Dr Stew Shankman, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Northwestern University. “Stress impacts your immune system and the more you are stressed, the more you are reducing your body’s ability to fight off infections.”
He said he is concerned about the effects of using ritualistic behaviours, like snapping a rubber band on your wrist each time you touch your face. It is more effective, he added, to try to be in the present moment, practising meditation and mindfulness exercises and focusing on your breathing.
As long as your hands are clean, touching your face is not catastrophic. “It’s a natural behaviour we all do,” Dr Shankman added. “It’s not the end of the world.”