Looking for an easy way to reduce your risk of getting the flu or other viral illnesses? Try not to touch your face.
That’s a step doctors are urging people to take as California faces a “triplemic” threat — with the flu, the coronavirus and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, simultaneously circulating in elevated levels statewide.
“The one point I want to re-emphasize is…avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth,” said Dr. Ralph Gonzales, an associate dean of UC San Francisco, in a recent city hall on campus. “Very good studies have shown that if we can redouble our efforts to be vigilant about this, that will increase our chances of staying flu-free.”
The risk is that some viruses can survive for days on hard surfaces. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people can become infected with the flu and RSV by touching an infected surface and then their face.
The coronavirus, on the other hand, usually spreads through the air. Touching contaminated surfaces is not a major contributor to infection. Flu and RSV can also be spread by droplets sent into the air when infected people cough, sneeze or talk, which then enter other people’s mouths or noses.
This simple-sounding advice may be easier said than done. Touching your face can be a spontaneous or even unconscious act that some studies indicate can help us deal with anxiety and discomfort, or be linked to negative or unsatisfying feelings.
And it’s something that happens a lot. A 2015 study caught medical students in class touching their faces an average of 23 times per hour.
But as flu season gets underway and some children’s hospitals are already full of RSV patients, officials are urging residents to do their part to curb the transmission of the viral duo.
Here are some tips to train yourself not to touch your face. It’s not impossible; politicians, for example, “learn through extensive training not to touch their faces during public speaking,” said Martin Grunwald, author of a book about touching faces, “Homo hapticus,” in an email to The Times in 2020. Still: “this behavior requires extreme self-control and is extremely demanding.”
- Start being mindful when you touch your face, catching yourself when – and preferably before – you do it.
- If you catch yourself touching your face, consider folding your hands or doing something else with them.
- Do you have an itch? Try to ignore it. If that bothers you, wash your hands, scratch them, and 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 curbing the spread of viruses, officials say. If soap and water are not available, hand sanitizer can work in a pinch.
Behavioral considerations aside, officials recommend getting a flu shot if you haven’t already, as the vaccine protects 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.
According to the CDC, flu hospitalizations nationwide are the highest for this time of year since the 2010-2011 season. And “this is just the beginning,” UC San Francisco infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Chin-Hong told his colleagues at campus city hall. “We’re just a little concerned when we look at these numbers.”
The CDC deemed California had a “high” level of flu activity for the week ending Nov. 12, according to the most recently available data. The country’s four other most populous states also had “high” levels of flu activity: Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois.
In California, the early hot spot remains the southeastern corner of the state — San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties — but overall flu activity is increasing across the state, data shows. The pressure of respiratory disease has prompted some San Diego County hospitals to use overflow tents outside of their emergency departments.
In Los Angeles County, the flu positivity rate has risen 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 a high level of activity for this time of year, and we continue to see a strong increase in the number of samples testing positive for the flu,” said county health officer Dr. Muntu. Davis said.
There is currently no vaccine available for RSV – making individual precautions all the more important. In addition to hand washing, experts recommend covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze and staying home if you’re sick to avoid potentially passing the virus on. Some people may also consider wearing a properly fitted mask in busy or indoor environments.
Given the current level of coronavirus spread, LA County officials now strongly recommend wearing a mask in indoor public areas.
“Masks protect against RSV and flu in the same way they protect against COVID transmission,” Davis said.