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Coronavirus now a pandemic: How to stop touching your face

Cat touching face

The novel coronavirus COVID-19 is officially a pandemic, by World Health Organization standards.

In a media briefing yesterday [11 March] WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced the disease now meets the definition of pandemic.

Coronavirus numbers so far

At present, there are more than 468,855 confirmed cases across the world, and 21,199 people have lost their lives.

“Pandemic is not a word used lightly or carelessly,” Dr Ghebreyesus says.

“WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction,” he says.

“We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic.”

The last time the WHO declared a pandemic was in 2009 when a new strain of H1N1 influenza was circulating.

No excuse for coronavirus complacency

Dr Ghebreyesus stressed the importance of countries not being complacent about containing the spread of the virus.

“We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic,” he says.

“If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilise their people in the response, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission.”

The response, Dr Ghebreyesus says, needs to be a ‘whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach’.

“We’re in this together”, he says.

How individuals can help prevent the spread of coronavirus

While Dr Ghebreyesus’ speech was largely aimed at the heads of countries, there are actions individual citizens can take that will help limit the spread of COVID-19.

As most of us know, the main advice is to wash your hands regularly, or use hand sanitiser, and avoid touching your face.

The hand hygiene part isn’t all that difficult but, it turns out, not touching your face can be.

Participants in a 2015 study, on average, touched their faces 23 times an hour.

Of those touches, 44 per cent involved the eyes, nose or mouth – exactly the points were viruses and bacteria can make it into your body.

Most of the time, touching your face is something you do without thinking about it. So how can you break an unconscious habit?

How to avoid touching your face

According to Texas A&M University cognition and cognitive science specialist Brian Anderson, the key to breaking a non-conscious habit is understanding that the behaviour doesn’t happen randomly.

“For touching your face, you tend to do that when you are in certain situations or feel a certain way,” Dr Anderson says.

“So, if you feel bored, [or] if you feel very empathetic in the context of a conversation, you may lean forward and put your hand in your chin,” he says.

The first step to overcoming a habit, such as face touching, is to ‘raise your consciousness’, Dr Anderson explains.


Being mindful of face touching starts with identifying the situations or experiences that trigger the action.

“The urge will be much stronger under certain circumstances. People rub their eyes when they’re tired, for example, or rest their chin in their hands during meetings or lectures,” Dr Anderson says.

Replace the habit

After you have identified your triggers, the next step is to replace the habit with another activity that has a similar feel but helps fight the urge.

“To make your life as easy as possible, you want that habit to be somewhat similar, but safer,” he says.

For instance, resting the side of your head, above the hairline, against your fingers instead of leaning your chin against your hands.

“The hands would still be coming into close contact but would not be near a mucous membrane,” he says.

Distract your hands

Another way to tackle face touching is by occupying your hands with an activity. This could include squeezing a stress ball or using a fidget spinner. Just make sure you regularly wash or the object you choose.

Use a tissue

If you do have to touch your face, make sure you use a clean disposable tissue to do it with, and bin it directly afterwards.

Engage your senses

Some experts have suggested using a very fragrant hand soap or lotion that you will notice if you bring your hands up to your face. The idea is it will trigger you to be more conscious of what you’re doing.

Keep your hands clean

And finally, the 2015 study mentioned earlier, recommends hand hygiene as an essential method for breaking the colonisation and transmission cycle of a pathogen. Basically, if your hands are clean and dry, and you do accidentally touch your face, your risk of contracting anything will be reduced.

6 steps to stop face touching

To summarise, the six ways you can help break your face touching habit are:

1. Mindfulness Observe yourself and figure out what triggers you to touch your face
2. Create a new habit Instead of touching your face, touch your hair or the back of your neck, for instance
3. Keep your hands busy Fold the washing, shuffle cards or use a stress ball to keep your hands busy
4. Use fragrant soap If your sense of smell kicks in when your hands are heading for your face, it may trigger you to be conscious of what you’re about to do
5. Use a tissue If you have to touch your face, do it with a clean, disposable tissue
6. Wash your hands This is really the most important safeguard. If you have clean hands it won’t matter as much if you accidently touch your face.

First published: Mar 2020

Article sources and references

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