To reduce the spread of COVID-19, experts want you to avoid close contact with others and avoid touching your face—but why? How does that help?
COVID-19 (the disease caused by the novel coronavirus) is a respiratory infection, meaning when you contract it, it affects the respiratory organs like the lungs, sinuses, airways, and nasal cavity. Like the flu (another respiratory infection), it’s transmitted from person to person via tiny liquid droplets that spew from the nose or mouth when people speak, breathe, cough, or sneeze.
Say, for example, that someone who is infected with COVID-19 coughs or sneezes. They emit infectious droplets, even if you can’t see them. If someone nearby inhales these droplets, they can become infected.
This is why healthcare workers wear face masks: It’s like a safety screen to block a patient’s infectious droplets from reaching the doctor or nurse’s nose and mouth and infecting them.
But COVID-19 can also be transmitted via surfaces. Someone might cough into their hand and then touch a surface, such as a door knob. This contaminates the surface of the door knob, and if someone else touches this surface, and then touches their face, they can become infected if the virus enters their mouth, nose, or eyes. Additionally, they can spread the virus further by touching other surfaces with their contaminated hands.
This is why it’s crucial to wash hands for at least 20 seconds regularly, especially before eating and preparing food, after using the bathroom, and after coughing and sneezing. It’s also helpful to cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow, as opposed to into your hands. (Here are more tips for preventing the spread of COVID-19 in your community.)
To be clear, hand hygiene is always important, and it can help prevent the spread of common infections like the cold, the seasonal flu, and foodborne illnesses. But during a viral outbreak, those 20 seconds spent at the sink can truly save thousands—and potentially millions—of lives.