Nose picking found to spread pneumococcus

Hand-to-nose bacterial transmission is possible, study finds

Parents, teachers and doctors have long grappled with the nose-picking child, and plenty of adults don’t mind a good old dig either.

noe-picking child

Now scientists have delivered another reason to keep fingers out of nasal passages, with a study showing nose picking, poking or even rubbing are all capable of transferring the pneumococcus bacteria from hand to nose.

For the first time, a UK study has shown bacteria can be transmitted by rhinotillexis, or nose picking, and not just by airborne droplets.

Researchers from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and Royal Liverpool Hospital have found that the bacteria can be spread by hand to nose, whether the sample is dry or wet, or whether transferred via a direct pick or a hand rub.

Lead researcher Dr Victoria Connor says the results suggest that ensuring good hand hygiene and keeping toys clean could help to protect young children from catching and spreading the bacteria to others.

“Our current understanding of the transmission of pneumococcus is poor, so we wanted to look at how it may be spread in the community,” Dr Connor says.

In the study, published in the European Respiratory Journal, 40 healthy adult volunteers were infected with pneumococcus through different hand-to-nose routes.

Two groups were asked to sniff the bacteria from their hands, in either a wet or dry sample.

The third and fourth group were asked to pick or poke their nose with a finger that was either exposed to wet pneumococcus bacteria, called a "wet poke", or to air-dried pneumococcus, called a "dry poke".

The highest rates of bacteria spread were among participants in the "wet poke" group, followed by the "wet sniff" group.

Altogether, eight of the 40 participants were found to be experimentally colonised by pneumococcus at follow-up visits for nine days after exposure.

European Respiratory Society president Professor Tobias Welte says this pilot study is the first to confirm pneumococcus can be spread through direct contact, rather than just through breathing in airborne bacteria.

"For clinicians, the findings reinforce the message that we must promote rigorous hand hygiene and basic infection control measures such as avoidance of sharing food, drink and mobile phones, in order to potentially reduce the transmission of respiratory bacterial pathogens such as pneumococcus,” he says.

The study was partly funded by Unilever.

More informationEuropean Respiratory Journal 2018