Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

Can We Hug Yet?

Experts disagree when it comes to a hug’s potential to spread Covid-19

Markham Heid
Published in
4 min readJun 11, 2020

At the start of the pandemic, hugs wouldn’t have ranked high on most people’s list of major deprivations. But after months of social distancing, a lot of grandparents, siblings, and loved ones are surely desperate to give one another a good squeeze.

There’s evidence that this urge to hug has deep biological roots. The skin is the human body’s largest sensory organ, as well as the first to develop in utero; we all feel life before we can see, smell, hear, or taste it. Research on newborn-parent interactions has found that a mother’s nurturing touch — holding, cuddling, massaging — plays an important role in infant development and behavior, and the benefits of physical affection seem to persist throughout life. Studies on both kids and adults have found that holding hands, hugging, and other forms of affectionate touching can ease stress and induce measurable reductions in heart rate and blood pressure.

All this helps explain why eschewing hugs may come with real health consequences — especially for those who are isolated from others. But to curb the spread of Covid-19, the CDC and other public health authorities recommend social-distancing measures that discourage hugging.

While some experts agree with these guidelines, others say hugging — especially if people take a few simple precautions — may be a relatively low-risk, high-reward activity.

“If you’re going to hug, just agree not to talk while you’re doing it. And your faces should be lateral — so cheek to cheek.”

What makes a hug “safe?”

Many of the current Covid-19 guidelines are based on science’s understanding of other viruses. When it comes to the novel coronavirus, specifically, the research is inchoate and evolving day to day. This makes it hard for experts to nail down the true risks associated with different behaviors, and not all agree on hugging’s position in the risk hierarchy.

“I never stopped hugging,” says Shanina Knighton, PhD, a researcher, nurse, and infection prevention expert at Case Western…



Markham Heid

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.