Are you looking for an easy way to reduce your risk of catching the flu or other viral diseases? Try not to touch your face.
It’s a step doctors are urging people to take as California faces a “triple” threat — the flu, the coronavirus, and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, all circulating at elevated levels across the country at once.
“The only point I would like to reiterate is … avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth,” said Dr. Ralph Gonzales, Associate Dean of UC San Francisco, recently at an on-campus town hall. “Very good studies have shown that if we redouble our efforts to be vigilant about this, our chances of staying flu-free increase.”
The risk is that some viruses can survive on hard surfaces for days. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people can become infected with the flu and RSV by touching a contaminated surface and then their face.
The coronavirus, on the other hand, typically spreads through the air. Touching contaminated surfaces does not significantly contribute to infection. Influenza and RSV can also be transmitted by droplets that are thrown into the air when infected people cough, sneeze, or speak, which then get into other people’s mouths or noses.
However, this simple-sounding piece of advice might be easier said than done. Touching your face can be a spontaneous or even unconscious act that some research shows may help us deal with fear and discomfort, or is associated with negative or unsatisfying feelings.
And it’s something that happens often. A 2015 study caught medical students touching their faces an average of 23 times an hour in class.
But with flu season on the rise and some children’s hospitals already filled with RSV patients, officials are urging residents to do their part to curb transmission of the viral duo.
Here are some tips on how to train yourself to avoid touching your face. It’s not impossible; Politicians, for example, “learn through extensive training not to touch their faces during public speaking,” Martin Grunwald, author of a book on facial touching, Homo hapticus, said in a 2020 email to The Times Behavior requires extreme self-control and is extremely exhausting.”
- Begin to be mindful when you touch your face, and catch yourself when you do—and preferably before—you do.
- If you catch yourself before you touch your face, consider folding your hands or doing something else with them.
- Itching? try to ignore it If that bothers you, wash your hands, then scratch them and wash your hands again. Or buy sterile wooden tongue depressors to use as an anti-itch remedy.
Regular handwashing is also an important step in thwarting the spread of the virus, officials say. When soap and water aren’t available, hand sanitizer can work in a pinch.
Aside from such behavioral considerations, officials recommend getting the flu shot if you haven’t already – as the vaccine offers protection against infection and serious illness. And early indications are that this year’s flu shot is “well matched to the circulating strains,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser.
The flu hospitalization rate nationwide is the highest for this time of year since the 2010-11 season, according to the CDC. And “this is just the beginning,” said UC San Francisco infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, his colleagues at the campus town hall. “We’re just a little concerned when we see those numbers.”
The CDC expected California to have “high” levels of flu activity for the week ending November 12, according to the latest available data. The country’s other four most populous states also had “high” levels of flu activity: Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois.
In California, the early hotspot remains the state’s southeast corner — San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties — but overall flu activity is increasing across the state, data shows. Pressures from respiratory illnesses have prompted some San Diego County hospitals to deploy overflow tents outside of their emergency rooms.
In Los Angeles County, the positivity rate for the flu has increased sharply. At least one flu-related death has been confirmed in the region since early October.
“Here in LA County, it’s abundantly clear that we’re seeing high levels of activity this time of year, and we continue to see a sharp increase in the proportion of samples that test positive for the flu,” said Dr. Muntu, county health officer, Davis said.
There is currently no vaccine against RSV – individual precautions are all the more important. As well as washing your hands, experts recommend covering your mouth and nose when sneezing and staying at home if you are sick to avoid possible transmission of the virus. Some people may also consider wearing a well-fitting mask in crowded environments or indoors.
With the current spread of the coronavirus, LA County officials now strongly recommend wearing a mask in indoor public places.
“Masks provide protection against RSV and flu just as they provide protection against COVID transmission,” Davis said.