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Don't Touch Your Face?

By Scott Hamilton, M.D.
March 23, 2020

When we visited my 89 year old mother-in-law last week, we met on the patio. Staying on the swings far from her chair, we couldn’t pass her the COVID-19 virus if we were carriers. My wife brought her own bottle of wine. Later Nana went into the kitchen to refill her glass, and through the window we saw her pick up my wife’s bottle, examining the label, while we both slapped our foreheads: “Nana, go wash your hands!”

Staying safe from the COVID-19 virus, aka Coronavirus, is like playing “invisible force field,” where any surface (counters, door knobs, wine bottles) is potentially contaminated, and you need to wash your hands before you touch your face or food. That’s how COVID-19, or any cold/flu virus, gets into your system. You inhale it when someone coughs or sneezes near you, or you put it in your mouth, nose or eyes with your fingers. The good news is that so far, COVID-19 doesn’t seem bad for children. They get a cough, runny nose and maybe fever, but many fewer kids are hospitalized for breathing trouble than adults. Like any other cold and fever virus, kids get by with ibuprofen or Tylenol for fever and pain and plenty of fluids. The bad news, and the main reason why schools and daycares close, is that kids spread infection around. They cough and sneeze without covering their mouths, letting fly with virus-laden droplets. They wipe their nose and mouths with their hands, and smear infectious drool onto everything they touch. Kids shed virus into the environment worse than adults because, well, they’re gross. So we close schools so kids don’t pass the virus from family to family, sending it into households with vulnerable family members — the elderly, cancer patients or those with certain
medical conditions.

Some kids get seriously sick from COVID. The Chinese experienced some pediatric hospitalizations, with some critically ill. Kids with asthma, heart conditions and infants might get it worse. If your child has a potentially dangerous condition, be extra vigilant about who they contact, where they go and what they touch. And don’t touch your face! 

Three weeks ago my wife and I were on vacation. We weren’t in China or Italy; we were in the snowy woods of Quebec, away from crowds, cross-country skiing. However, we flew home through Newark airport, part of New York City’s transportation network, with lots of international travelers milling about. In the customs line a kid next to us kept sneezing without covering his mouth, his parents oblivious. Great. We haven’t gotten sick, so the little turkey apparently hasn’t given us COVID-19, but it’s now revealing itself in Acadiana. As you keep hearing, the best defense against catching the virus is good hygiene. Cough and sneeze into
your elbow to avoid spreading the virus. Don’t get close to anyone since they might be shedding it. Wash hands frequently
in case you’ve inadvertently touched a contaminated surface. And don’t touch your face!

As we mentioned last week, the virus gets into you through your mouth, eyes and nose. You can pick up the virus from a doorknob, a handshake, a handrail and then when you touch your face, you pass it into those portals. It’s remarkable how many times people touch their faces — on average several times per hour. After all, faces are sensitive, and need scratching. Noses need picking, thumbs need licking. Telling people to stop touching their faces is like telling them to lose weight or stop smoking. Eating badly, smoking and rubbing your nose are all near-impossible habits to break. Hence the draconian steps of closing schools, restaurants and anywhere else people mingle. The virus spreads too easily, and people pick it up too easily as well. And try teaching kids not to touch their faces! That’s also why we’re advised to wash hands so much. When we do touch our faces, we’re safer with clean hands.

Frequent hand-washing is easy for me, washing them over forty times per day at work anyway, before and after touching each patient. But, not everyone has that habit. The CDC has warned that wearing a face mask doesn’t really stop the spread of infectious droplets. But, maybe wearing the mask will keep you from getting your fingers into your mouth, nose or eyes. Maybe people should wear mittens instead. And definitely, for the next few months, stay away from Nana.