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A Guide To Hugging During COVID

Every doomsday scenario we’ve ever seen in a movie involves people throwing their arms around one another as the ship sinks, the asteroid heads toward Earth. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made physical contact fraught, and left families isolated in their homes. Five months deep, many children are itching to hug their grandparents and friends. Parents long to hug their friends and siblings. Fed up with keeping their distance, the children of a friend recently rushed Grandma like players streaming from the dugout onto the field after a game-winning home run. The joy and relief they felt was plain to see.

Now that the curve has ticked up again and there is truly no end in sight, do we dare ask about hugs? And by hugging, we’re talking about the real hugs sans plastic wrap, without tarps or any sort of homemade hug barriers.

We dared and got the lowdown on who to hug, how to do it, and the risks versus the rewards.

Consider this first. Hugging is not a “no risk” activity, says Esti Schabelman, M.D., chief medical officer with Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. That’s why it’s essential to consider the risks before hugging someone who is elderly or immunocompromised. And since we don’t know the exact dose of coronavirus droplets required to make you sick, the CDC recommends that you stay 6 feet away from anyone who isn’t in your household. A study published in June 2020 found that the highest risk of exposure to a respiratory infection occurs when you’re in close proximity with an infected person. But, if you hug without coughing or splashing a droplet (yuck!) on the other person, your risk will be relatively low.

Decrease the risk. Having said that, there are a few things you could do to decrease the risk during a hug. COVID is a respiratory virus, so try to avoid breathing the same air as the other person while you hug, says Leann Poston, M.D., a doctor with Invigor Medical. “Both people should turn their heads in opposite directions when hugging,” she says. “Wearing a mask would decrease the risk even further.” And since the virus can be transmitted by contact if you touch an infected surface and then touch your face, wash your hands after you hug. Don’t speak, cough or laugh during a hug, as this can increase the spread of particles (back away to at least 6 feet before speaking), Schabelman says. Even better: hold your breath during the hug, and hug outdoors rather than indoors, he says. And while you may be tempted to hold on to your person for ages, remember that short hugs likely transfer less virus than long hugs, Schabelman says.

The benefits may outweigh the risks and therefore hugging is justified.

Risk vs reward: grandparents. “I have approached every question on COVID in the same way: what are the risks and benefits?” Poston asks. The risks of hugging is the possibility of infection with COVID, though the level of risk varies. The benefits in the case of hugging are the ability to express support, connection and improve mental health, Poston says. Hugging people who live in the same household as you do should have minimal increased risk, so Poston wouldn’t restrict hugging within the house unless someone is sick. As far as the grandparents? “I would recommend being careful, but the benefits may outweigh the risks and therefore hugging is justified,” she says.

Julia Sileo hugs her grandmother, Mary Grace Sileo through a plastic drop cloth hung up on a homemade clothes line. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

But also consider their medical history. When it comes to grandparents and the elderly, think about their health first, and realize that everyone is different, says Brynna Connor, M.D., member of the Texas Academy of Family Practice, and healthcare ambassador at NorthWest Pharmacy, an independent online pharmacy. “A healthy 70- to 80-year-old person might have much less risk than a much younger person who has significant medical conditions in their 50s and 60s or younger,” she says. So think about their medical history before spending time in close proximity or hugging them. If they have an immune-compromised condition, then that individual is at a much higher risk of getting seriously ill.

If a teacher hugs a young child and they’re both at different levels (perhaps the child reaches the teacher’s waist, for example), and both are wearing masks and facing in opposite directions, then the risk is pretty low.

What about teachers and other kids? Poston says she wouldn’t be an advocate for hugging anyone except for those totally necessary (grandparents qualify as necessary). To encourage close contact between people who are not in the same household increases the risk for the spread of infection, and may upset people who are uncomfortable with the close contact and the risk it puts them in, she says. But we can only do so much. “We want our children to be conscious of the infection and the feelings of others, but do not want them to be paranoid or scared,” she says. At the same time, if a teacher hugs a young child and they’re both at different levels (perhaps the child reaches the teacher’s waist, for example), and both are wearing masks and facing in opposite directions, then the risk is pretty low. It’s tricky.

Alternative options. Giuseppe Aragona, M.D., general practitioner and family doctor at Prescription Doctor, says it’s understandable that people are missing intimacy and are craving physical solutions. But he doesn’t condone hugging. “Offer some fun ways to greet each other that do not involve contact: blow kisses, air high fives, all of those are much safer and could be more fun for the younger people in your life,” he says.

Experts:

Esti Schabelman, M.D., chief medical officer with Sinai Hospital in Baltimore

Leann Poston, M.D., doctor with Invigor Medical

Brynna Connor, M.D., member of the Texas Academy of Family Practice, and healthcare ambassador at NorthWest Pharmacy

Giuseppe Aragona, M.D., general practitioner and family doctor at Prescription Doctor

Studies referenced:

Chen, W., Zhang, N., Wei, J., Yen, H., Li, Y. (2020) Short-range airborne route dominates exposure of respiratory infection during close contact, Building & Environment, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0360132320302183#!

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here.