Looking for an easy way to reduce your risk of catching the flu or other viral illness? Try not to touch your face.
That’s the step doctors are urging people to take as California faces a “triple threat” — with the flu, the coronavirus and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, circulating at elevated levels across the state at once.
“The one point I want to re-emphasize is … don’t touch your eyes, nose and mouth,” said Dr. Ralph Gonzales, associate dean of UC San Francisco. “Very good studies have shown that if we can redouble our efforts to be vigilant about this, it increases our chances of staying flu-free.”
The risk is that some viruses can survive on a hard surface for days. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people can get the flu and RSV by touching a contaminated surface and then touching their face.
The coronavirus, on the other hand, typically spreads through the air. Touching contaminated surfaces is not a major contributor to infection. Influenza and RSV can also spread through droplets sent into the air when infected people cough, sneeze or talk, which then land in other people’s mouths or noses.
However, this simple-sounding advice is easier said than done. Touching your face can be a spontaneous or even subconscious act that some research suggests can help us deal with anxiety and discomfort, or can be associated with negative or unsatisfying feelings.
And this happens often. A 2015 study caught medical students in class touching their faces an average of 23 times per hour.
But with flu season ramping up and some children’s hospitals already overwhelmed with RSV patients, officials are urging residents to help curb transmission of the viral duo.
Here are some tips to train yourself not to touch your face. It is not impossible; for example, politicians “learn through extensive training not to touch their face during a public speech,” Martin Grunwald, author of the face-touching book “Homo hapticus,” said in an email to The Times in 2020. this behavior requires extreme self-control and is extremely challenging.”
- Start being mindful when you touch your face, catch yourself when—and preferably before—you do.
- If you find yourself before touching your face, consider folding your hands or doing something else with them.
- Are you itching? Try to ignore it. If it bothers you, wash your hands, scratch them, then wash your hands again. Or buy sterile wooden tongue depressors to use as an itch-scratching tool.
Regular hand washing is also an important step to help thwart the spread of the virus, officials say. When soap and water are not available, hand sanitizer can work in a pinch.
In addition to these behavioral considerations, officials recommend getting a flu shot if you haven’t already — because the vaccine will protect against infection and serious illness. And early indications are that this year’s flu shot “matches the circulating strains well,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to President Biden.
Nationally, the flu hospitalization rate is the highest 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 to his colleagues at the campus town hall. “We’re just a little concerned about watching those numbers.
The CDC believed California had a “high” level of flu activity for the week ending Nov. 12, according to the most recent data available. The nation’s four other most populous states also had “high” levels of flu: Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois.
In California, the southeast corner of the state — San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties — remains an early hot spot, but overall flu activity is increasing across the state, data show. Pressure from respiratory illnesses has forced some San Diego County hospitals to use emergency tents outside of emergency tents.
Flu positivity rates are skyrocketing in Los Angeles County. 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 see a high level of activity this time of year and continue to see a sharp increase in the proportion of samples testing positive for the flu,” County Health Officer Dr. Muntu said Davis.
There is currently no vaccine available for RSV, so individual precautions are all the more important. Along with hand washing, experts recommend covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze and staying home when you’re sick to avoid possible transmission of the virus. Some people may also consider wearing a well-fitting mask in crowded or indoor environments.
Due to the current level of spread of the coronavirus, officials in LA County are now strongly recommending the wearing of face coverings in indoor public spaces.
“Masks will provide protection against RSV and influenza in the same way that they provide protection against the transmission of COVID,” Davis said.