15 Seemingly Innocuous Habits That Increase Coronavirus Risk
From using contact lenses to not shaving, these habits are surprising risk factors for COVID-19.
So much about daily life has changed across the globe as we work to tamp down the spread of COVID-19, from spending almost all our time at home to getting far more familiar with hand sanitizer than we ever imagined. But one of the biggest changes to how we go about our lives is the way we now have to think about our habits. Little behaviors we practically forgot we even did have now taken on much greater importance—and risk—as we have become aware of how easily the coronavirus spreads, and how the smallest actions can facilitate our exposure. With that in mind, here are 15 seemingly innocuous habits that may increase your risk of catching COVID-19.
Letting your beard grow out of control
In the era of COVID-19, you could be adding unnecessary risks to your daily life by growing out your beard. While a widely circulated infographic of acceptable beard shapes supposedly released by the CDC turned out to be a hoax, a big bushy beard could still be an issue.
"Many people are using N95 masks as a way to protect themselves," explains internal medicine physician Roberto Contreras II, MD, the regional medical director of Borrego Health. "If someone has facial hair, a beard, the mask will not make a tight seal and exposes the individual to what they are trying to protect themselves from. A N95 mask or surgical mask will make a better barrier if people do not have facial hair."
Being careless with your cell phone
If concerns about getting your phone swiped aren't enough to keep you from absentmindedly setting it down on a table or bathroom sink, then maybe concerns that it could pick up the coronavirus will.
"The cell phone is on a surface, and if that surface has any viruses/bacteria on it, it then attaches to the cell phone," says Contreras. "People then bring their phone to their face and expose themselves to all the viruses/bacteria they have been trying to avoid. To better avoid this unnecessary exposure, people should always keep their cell phones on their person."
Tearing open packages
For many, it used to be a treat to have packages arrive, and we'd eagerly tear open the box or envelope to see what was inside. Now that kind of behavior could put you in harm's way.
Nishant Rao, ND, chief medical officer for telehealth company DocTalkGo, urges people to be cautious about the packages arriving at their door. "We know the virus lives for different times on different surfaces, whether they are porous or smooth," he says. "The item may have been untouched in the box for days and there may be nothing dangerous, or maybe the delivery person sneezed on the box right when they dropped it off."
To be safe, he says that his own family now leaves "a longer time frame" when a box is delivered and when handling it. And when they do open it, they do so with gloves to avoid directly touching it, and then immediately wash their hands after.
Leaning on surfaces
When waiting in line or for an elevator, you might be in the habit of leaning against the nearest wall or countertop. But while that kind of slouching once only put you in danger of bad posture, now it can lead you to unwittingly pick up the virus.
"I had a friend who picked up food delivery and he took a photo of three healthcare providers in line—they were standing six feet apart, but each was resting their forearms on the metal counter," says Rao. "These are the people most likely to be in proximity to the virus."
Using contact lenses
This isn't exactly a "habit" but it's certainly not something most people would have expected could put their life in danger. Kevin Lee, MD, eye physician and surgeon at the Pacific Vision Eye Institute, explains that COVID-19 is transmitted through mucous membranes, including our eyes. Contact-lens wearers have a higher risk of corneal infections and conjunctivitis (commonly known as pink eye) due to bacteria, parasites, viruses, and fungi—and that means they could also be at increased risk of exposure to coronavirus.
"This is especially true if contact lens-wearers do not practice good hygiene such as not properly cleaning their lenses, sleeping in contacts, not washing their hands, or extending the wear of their contacts past the recommended date," says Lee. "Try replacing contact lenses with glasses. Not only does this lower your chances of transmission, glasses can also act as a protective barrier against aerosol transmission."
He points out that if someone who has the coronavirus sneezes, glasses can shield your eyes from the little respiratory droplets. "But if you're wearing contacts, the respiratory droplets can potentially get into your eyeballs," he says.
Similarly, sharing any cosmetics that come into close contact with your eyes is a big mistake. "Coronavirus can be found and transmitted through ocular secretions, like tears, so it's important not to share eye drops or cosmetics with family members or friends," says Lee. "It's possible for the tip of the eye dropper or mascara to be contaminated by coming in contact with the ocular secretions of someone who is COVID-positive."
Touching your face
This is the big one. While we almost instinctively avoid people who are sneezing or coughing, and kept our distance long before a global pandemic gave doing so a lot more urgency, many people have described how difficult they have found it to avoid touching their face, even though this could be even more dangerous than standing near someone who is sniffling.
"Given the number of surfaces we touch throughout the day, touching your face and/or eyes can increase the chances of a virus on your hands being transferred into your body," says Vandana A. Patel, MD, clinical advisor for online pharmacy Cabinet. "Be aware of reflexive habits to touch your face, such as scratching an itch or moving stray hairs, and try to avoid it the best you can."
Depending on takeout and delivery
Whether ordering delivery is an occasional treat or a way to make your evening a bit easier after a long day, many people have come to fully rely on popping an order into Seamless or Grubhub and letting others do all the hard work. But amid the pandemic, a dependence on delivery could be adding health risks to your evening ritual.
"When you order food from outside your home or go to the grocery store, you interact with numerous items that others have touched—these include cardboard boxes, paper bags, and plastic containers," says Patel. "The coronavirus can stay on hard surfaces for days, so ensure that you're careful about where you set down grocery or take out bags, and wash those surfaces and your hands thoroughly after bringing them home."
Not washing produce
You might generally assume that the produce you get at the grocery store is relatively safe, so you don't stress too much about rinsing it off. But while that would probably be fine a few weeks ago, it's not too wise anymore.
"Gone are the days you could pick something from the aisle and start eating in the parking lot," says Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, professor of health at Ball State University. "Many people touch aisles and substances in grocery stores. One must be mindful about personal hygiene and cleaning produce as well."
Walking through the house wearing shoes
While taking off your shoes upon entering the house is traditional in many cultures and households, it should be even more widespread these days. "A pair of shoes for work and a pair while coming back, or keeping shoes out of the home could help," says Khubchandani.
Skipping a shower
While most of us are aware of the importance that washing hands has for helping mitigate risk of contracting coronavirus, we might still be less diligent about our showering regimen—especially when we aren't worried about being presentable for other people.
"Many are now confined to homes and may neglect daily routines," says Khubchandani. "Taking a shower daily will ensure people are protected." That's especially true if you're going outside, as dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, told PopSugar. If you're leaving the house, make sure you shower as soon as you get home.
While this is always a pretty gross habit, Khubchandani points out that in this time of coronavirus, "this is bad for the person doing it and for others. Given that many infected people are not having symptoms, this habit could create a problem for people engaging in this habit and those living around [them]."
Touching your nostrils is risky, even if you're not sticking your whole finger up there. But really, you should never be doing either.
Whether you bite your fingernails because you're nervous, excited, or bored, nail biting is a bad idea if you're worried about contracting COVID-19. Ellie Murray, ScD, a professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health, told WGBH that nail biting allows the virus to get in your mouth.
"Anything you do to kind of help the virus get from the outside world into those moist parts of your face is going to increase your risk of catching the virus," she said.
Not sleeping enough
We all know it's important to get a good night's sleep, but for many, that's easier said than done, particularly when there are so many reasons for anxiety and disrupted sleep. As it happens, lack of sleep has been found to weaken one's immune system—according to a 2017 study published in the journal Sleep—which can put you at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19.
Taking gloves off wrong
Even as the weather has improved, many people have opted to continue wearing gloves as a precautionary measure against the virus, ensuring there is a layer between themselves and potentially dangerous surfaces. But all that unseasonable handwear is for naught when that person takes the gloves off carelessly.
"Health care personnel never touch the outside of the glove when they take them off," says Contreras. "They peel one glove over the other and then use the inside-out glove to touch the remaining glove. However, I see multiple people touching things in the store with their gloves hoping to avoid contact with surfaces, but once they return to their car they take the gloves off inappropriately and expose themselves to what they were trying to avoid in the first place. It defeats the purpose if someone does not take the gloves off in the correct fashion."