Why You Can’t Stop Touching Your Face
It’s a human trait, a subconscious action, a scientific inevitability. Sigh.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) threat is educating us (by fire) about hand hygiene. Washing hands is the most important tool to prevent the spread of the new virus, which at this point has no known treatment or vaccine.
The other piece of hygiene advice commonly dispensed at this unnerving time: Don’t touch your face. This is wise, no doubt, as touching happens with our hands, our tools for interacting with the world and its microbes. And hands can introduce unwanted microorganisms right into our bodies.
As a physician, I’ve learned to treasure my hands as wonderful instruments, but also to be wary of their role in spreading germs.
Respiratory infections, such as the flu, the common cold, and also COVID-19, spread through droplets that infected people send into the air. But you can also transfer microorganisms directly into your eyes, mouth, and nose with your own hands, hands that were in contact with microbes. And it’s not just viral respiratory infections that spread this way. Bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus live peacefully in the noses of up to a quarter of the population, and can move from there to infect other parts of the body — as well as the bodies of other people.
Why is it so hard to stop touching your face?
So, now that you’ve been told to stop touching your face, can you do it?
What helped me realize the difficulty of following this directive is noticing how many times my face stings after cutting hot peppers. I cook with jalapeños and other spicy peppers often, and although I try very hard not to touch my face as I prep them, I feel the burn all too often. So obviously, I’m touching my face without even being aware.
That’s likely because to do so is to be human.
It’s a human trait, a subconscious action, and much like intermittently changing our posture or scratching an itch, it’s hard to stop.