A study published Aug. 2 in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One found that nose-picking among healthcare workers is associated with an increased likelihood of contracting a SARS-CoV-2 infection, which causes COVID.
“We therefore recommend health care facilities to create more awareness, e.g. by educational sessions or implementing recommendations against nose picking in infection prevention guidelines,” the study’s authors said.
To conduct the study, researchers analyzed rates of COVID-19 infection among staff at Amsterdam UMC from March 2020 through October 2020, then in 2021, surveyed participants to see whether they picked their noses. Other behaviors, such as nail biting, or physical attributes like having a beard, were also asked about.
Of the 219 healthcare workers who completed the survey, 185 disclosed that they were habitual nose pickers, with frequency varying from monthly, to weekly to daily.
Nose pickers were younger than those who didn’t pick their nose: the median age was 44 for those who did.
More men, 90% of them, reported picking their noses often than women (83%). Of the professionals asked, doctors were the most frequent nose pickers, with 100% of residents and 91% of specialists saying they do.
The study showed those who picked their nose had a 17.3% chance of getting the SARS-CoV-2 infection compared to those who refrained, who had a 5.9% chance.
“It makes sense that touching your nose with your hands — because our hands touch so many surfaces — is a way to move infectious agents from one surface to another, and from one person to another,” Stuart Ray, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University, told the Washington Post. Ray was not involved in the study.
Other medical experts who talked to The Post said that people touch their faces for a variety of reasons — some involuntary — including communicate or to self-soothe.
Study authors noted some limitations in their recent research, including the amount of time between when infections were measured and when people answered the survey questions, meaning some may have changed their behavior or misremembered.
Additionally, the current study was done in the “pre-Omicron and pre-vaccination era,” scientists said, so implications for the current practice could be influenced by changing viral characteristics.
However, lead study author Dr. Ayesha Lavell, a physician at the Department of Internal Medicine at Amsterdam University Medical Centers, said in an interview with Live Science that this new information can help create awareness of prevention guidelines.
“As health care workers we are extra aware of being hygienic, but these findings just show that we are also human,” she said.
In fact, these findings could also be applicable to viruses transmitted in a similar way to COVID-19, Lavell said, though added that more studies are needed to confirm the results.