Looking for an easy way to reduce your risk of catching the flu or other viral illnesses? Try not touching your face.
That's a step doctors are urging people to take as California faces a "tripledemic" threat — with flu, the coronavirus and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, circulating at elevated levels statewide all at once.
"The one point I want to reemphasize is … avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth," Dr. Ralph Gonzales, a UC San Francisco associate dean, said at a recent campus town hall. "Very good studies have shown that if we can double down 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 be infected with flu and RSV by touching a contaminated surface and then their face.
The coronavirus, by contrast, typically spreads through the air. Touching contaminated surfaces isn't a major contributor to infection. Flu and RSV also can be spread by droplets sent into the air when infected people cough, sneeze or talk, which then land in other people's mouths or noses.
This simple-sounding advice may be easier said than done, however. Touching your face can be a spontaneous or even subconscious act that some research indicates can help us deal with anxiety and discomfort, or be related to negative or dissatisfactory feelings.
And it's something that happens a lot. A study from 2015 caught medical students in class touching their faces 23 times per hour on average.
But with flu season ramping up and some children's hospitals already packed with RSV patients, officials are urging residents to do their part to tamp down transmission of the viral duo.
Here are some tips on how to train yourself to avoid touching your face. It's not impossible; politicians, for instance, "learn through extensive training to restrain from touching their face during public speaking," Martin Grunwald, author of a book on face touching, “Homo hapticus,” said in an email to The Times in 2020. Still, “this behavior requires extreme self-control and is extremely trying.”
Start being mindful when you do touch your face, catching yourself when — and, preferably, before — you do it.
If you catch yourself before touching your face, consider folding your hands or doing something else with them.
Got an itch? Try to ignore it. If that’s bothersome, wash your hands, then scratch it, then wash your hands again. Or buy sterile wooden tongue depressors to use as a tool to scratch itches.
Regular handwashing is also an important step to help thwart viral spread, officials say. When soap and water aren't available, hand sanitizer can work in a pinch.
Aside from such behavioral considerations, officials recommend getting a flu shot if you haven't already — since the vaccine will provide protection against infection and severe illness. And early indications are this year's flu shot "is well matched to the circulating strains," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical advisor.
Nationwide, the flu hospitalization rate is the highest for this time of year since the 2010–11 season, according to the CDC. And "this is just the beginning," UC San Francisco infectious diseases expert Dr. Peter Chin-Hong told his colleagues at the campus town hall. "We're just a little bit worried watching these numbers."
The CDC considered California to have a "high" level of flu activity for the week that ended Nov. 12, according to the most recent available data. The nation's four other most populous states also had a "high" level of flu activity: Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois.
In California, the early hot spot remains the state’s southeastern corner — San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties — but overall flu activity is increasing throughout the state, data show. Pressures from respiratory illnesses have prompted some San Diego County hospitals to use overflow tents outside their emergency departments.
In Los Angeles County, the positivity rate for the flu has been increasing steeply. At least one flu-associated death has been confirmed in the region since the start of October.
"Here in L.A. County, it's abundantly clear that we are seeing high levels of activity for this time of year, and we're continuing to see a sharp increase in the proportion of specimens testing positive for flu," county health officer Dr. Muntu Davis said.
At this point, there's no vaccine available for RSV — making individual precautions all the more important. Along with handwashing, experts recommend covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze and staying home when you're sick to avoid potentially passing on the virus. Some people may also consider wearing a well-fitting mask in crowded or indoor settings.
Given the current level of coronavirus spread, officials in L.A. County now strongly recommending wearing a mask in indoor public spaces.
"Masks will provide protection against RSV and flu the same way they provide protection against COVID transmission," Davis said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.