Few things offer more physical comfort than hugs. It’s why people missed them so much. Hugging not only feels good but has been shown to help reduce stress, strengthen our immune systems and help a person’s mood on days they’re experiencing conflict. Touch is a fundamental part of communication and well-being, and research shows when a person isn’t touched, they can develop “touch starvation” or “touch hunger,” which can increase anxiety and depression. The pandemic deprived people of hugging at a time they needed it most.
The country is reopening, and vaccinated people have been told they can more or less return to pre-pandemic life. But not everyone is vaccinated, many people will never be, and the youngest among us are still waiting their turn. What does this mean for people’s ability to touch?
“When we talk about touching, shaking hands, hugging, just the act of touching does not in and of itself increase the risk (of spreading disease),” said Robert Wachter, professor, and chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
“It’s just an analog of close contact where there might be the opportunity for either droplet transmission or aerosol transmission,” he explained. “Is it safe? The challenge is that the answer varies.”
Hugging and the physics of transmission
COVID-19 spreads through droplets and aerosols, tiny particles that can suspend in the air that contain the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and can either be breathed in or land on someone’s eyes, nose or mouth. When a person is closer than 6 feet from a person carrying the virus, they are more likely to become infected.
Resource: Your guide to COVID-19
Transmission can occur during activities such as coughing, talking, singing, and yelling. Wachter said if the choice is between sitting closely and staring someone in the face versus hugging them, in terms of the physics of transmission, hugging may in some cases be safer. During an adequately deployed hug, heads are not facing the same direction, and noses and mouths are passed each other.
“From an aerosol standpoint, it doesn’t matter if you’re a foot in front of someone or facing in opposite directions. Think about cigar smoke. You would still breathe that in when hugging someone,” he said. “But from a droplet, from a direct ballistic hit, something coming out of a person’s mouth, you’re safer with your ears next to their ears, heads facing in opposite directions than being a foot in front of them.”
Who is safe to hug?
Vaccinated people hugging vaccinated people are safe because most of them are unlikely to have COVID and the chances of transmitting it are very low.