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Scared of COVID-19? Don't panic — prevent and prepare, instead. Here's what everyone should know about common-sense steps to protect themselves.

COVID-19 has taken the world by storm — and it's hard for anyone who reads the news not to panic at least a little bit. Panic serves little purpose, however. It's better to simply react, in this case by taking common-sense preventative measures that will lower your risk of infection and help you prepare if you do catch the novel coronavirus. 

Are you doing everything you can to protect yourself against COVID-19?

Wash your hands (No, really!)

Almost everyone knows that hand hygiene is important. Most people are aware that washing their hands often can significantly slash their risk of ending up with a respiratory infection, including COVID-19 — and most make a bit of an effort to wash their hands, too. It may still not be good enough, as research also shows that only five percent of people not only wash their hands after using a public restroom, but actually do so correctly. 

So, in light of the fact that you really don't want to be infected with the novel coronavirus and you may well be among the majority of people who washes their hands, but not properly, here's a refresher:

  • To correctly wash your hands with soap and water, wet them with running water, turn the tap off, soap up and scrub all over for 20 seconds, rinse your hands, and dry them with a clean towel or air dryer.
  • If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. This has been shown to reduce the risk of transmission of other coronaviruses, but not much is known about how effective it is in the fight against COVID-19 yet. Still, to use hand sanitizer properly, apply the correct amount (according to manufacturer instructions) to your palm, rub it all over your hands, and keep rubbing until your hands are dry. 
  • The CDC advises hand hygiene before eating and preparing food, if you've been to the bathroom or helped someone else with toileting needs, after throwing away trash, after handling pets and their food, and of course after sneezing, coughing, handling a cut or wound, or caring for a sick person. If you want to stay extra safe, consider also washing your hands after spending time in public spaces, where it is possible you could pick COVID-19 and other pathogens up from contaminated surfaces. 
  • Frequent hand washing makes your skin dry really quickly — strongly consider using a good hand cream, as well.

Don't touch your face

You may not even realize you're doing it, but if you're anything like just about everyone else, you are. Research reveals that most people touch their face about 15 to 16 times per hour — and this is a great way to get any pathogens on your (maybe not recently washed) hands get into your face, nose, and eyes, and in turn earn yourself a full-blown infection. 

Folks touch their face for obvious practical reasons like scratching an itch, fixing their makeup, or removing a piece of dirt, but also, research shows, to help them regulate their emotions and cognitive processes. It's so natural that it's very hard to stop — but doing your very best to avoid touching your face with potentially-contaminated hands will help reduce your risk of catching COVID-19 as well as numerous other respiratory infections. 

So, how? Here are some tips:

  • This is where medical masks may be valuable, actually — wearing a mask offers a constant reminder to refrain from touching your face, as well as a physical barrier. Though it's not good to touch medical masks with your dirty hands, either. 
  • If touching your face serves as a kind of "fidget" for you, one that helps you think, try getting an actual fidget toy instead. Just make sure to disinfect it from time to time. 
  • Ask the people around you to let you know if they catch you touching your face. 
  • If you have long hair, keep it tied up so you don't have to touch your face to get bothersome stray hair out of it. 
  • People who wear makeup might pile it on a bit thicker — knowing it's there may keep you from touching your face because you don't want to mess it up or get it on your hands.
  • You could also try using a hand cream (good anyway, since all that frequent hand hygiene can make your skin dry) with a scent you don't particularly enjoy. When you bring your hands up to your face, the smell may deter you. 

Should you wear a mask?

We're not going to tell you what to do — it's a choice you should make for yourself. However, before you decide, it's important to be aware of some things. 

The World Health Organization currently recommends that you use a mask if, and only if:

  • You are coughing or sneezing. 
  • You are healthy but taking care of someone who is suspected of having COVID-19 (though they don't say so, we assume this holds true for confirmed cases as well). 
They add that people who do use masks should always combine this with meticulous hand hygiene and must know how to use the mask in question properly. The WHO has videos instructing on the proper use of medical masks and respirators available — click the link to find out more. 

The CDC, too, recommends against the use of surgical masks outside of healthcare settings. Instead, they advise people to take preventative measures like staying away from sick people, washing your hands frequently, and coughing and sneezing safely, into a tissue. If you are showing symptoms, you need to stay away from people as much as possible and seek medical advice. 

Though wearing a mask anyway may sound like a reasonable preventative step, there are drawbacks:

  • Given the fact that global shortages have been reported, you may contribute to further shortages by wearing masks. 
  • If you don't use them properly, they could do more harm than good. 
  • Wearing a mask may even instill a false sense of security.
  • Some masks actually make it harder to breathe for people who have chronic respiratory conditions.  

On the other hand, wearing a mask of any kind could at least remind you not to touch your face. 

What to do if you have COVID-19 symptoms

A fever, cough, and difficulty breathing aren't specific to the novel coronavirus — so don't panic just yet, but do take the situation seriously, especially if you have recently returned from China or another place with many cases, are currently there, or have had contact with someone suspect or confirmed to have the virus. 

Many countries are still working out how to best handle potential cases. In the US, the CDC advises people with symptoms who suspect they have been exposed to COVID-19 to:

  • Stay home, unless it is to get medical attention. 
  • Separate yourself from other people and animals in your home — use a separate area, and if possible a different bathroom. Don't share towels, bedding, or anything else. 
  • Wear a mask and wash your hands before interacting with anyone. 
  • If you seek medical care, call in ahead of time. 
  • Clean frequently-touched surfaces every day.

Preparing for infection and quarantine

Infected people who don't need to be hospitalized are advised to stay home to help stop the spread of COVID-19 — but even if you aren't infected, the virus may affect you and your family in other ways, if, for instance, schools close. Think ahead. Strongly consider buying at least a few weeks' of supplies of non-perishable and frozen foods, as well as essential care items, so you aren't forced to go out. Think about making arrangments with your workplace in case you get sick, and plan ahead if you have kids, in case schools in your area close down for a time. 

Consider staying away from crowded places as much as possible

Again, we're not telling you what to do — but you know that people who will leave their homes and walk around even when they have symptoms are among us, along with those who don't yet have symptoms because they're in the incubation period (two days to two weeks, roughly) and don't have a clue they were infected. 

Maybe right now is not the greatest time to go to concerts, busy shopping malls, or other places with big crowds that you could easily miss out on without a great loss to your quality of life. 

If you're in an area with multiple or many cases, it may also be wise to postpone routine medical and dental checkups to a later date — not only could visiting a hospital or clinic pose a transmission risk, you may also be further overwhelming already overworked medical staff.