Search IconSearch

Cough Etiquette: Why It’s So Important

The best way to prevent others from getting sick

A little girl coughing in to get elbow : Stock Photo Buy the print Comp Save to Board A little girl sneezing in to get elbow

If there were ever a perfect time to practice good hand hygiene and cough etiquette, it’s now. We’ve been locked in this pandemic for over a year and we’re all keenly more aware than ever before just how easy it is to spread germs.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Before coronavirus, it was normal to go to work or school with a mild cough or runny nose. But these days, the slightest sniffle is bound to raise alarm from those around you.

Here’s what you need to know if you find yourself coughing or sneezing around others.

Protect others from getting sick too

If you’re feeling under the weather, the most important thing you can do is stay home and avoid carrying your germs to school, work or anywhere else. If you’re already in public and find yourself coughing or sneezing, it’s critical that you wear a face mask (but you already knew that and were wearing one, right?).

A face mask is going to reduce the rate of your respiratory droplets going out into the open air and reaching and infecting others. It protects both yourself and those around you.

Don’t like the feeling of coughing or sneezing into a wet mask? Always travel with a few spare face masks to swap out.

Typical cough etiquette without a face mask includes the guidelines below and should still be practiced at home (even from people who are fully vaccinated):

  • Use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose every single time you cough or sneeze. Resort to coughing into your elbow if a tissue is not available. Never cough into your hands or open air.
  • Always turn your face away from people around you when coughing or sneezing.
  • Place your used tissue immediately in the trash can.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 to 95% alcohol after you cough or sneeze.

“When you cough into the air, you can actually send germs as far as 3 to 6 feet in front of you,” explains infectious disease specialist Frank Esper, MD. “And if you cough into your hands, you could transfer germs from place to place when you touch something else.”

Serious respiratory viruses are commonly spread by unclean hands and touching your face after touching contaminated surfaces. So it’s incredibly important to wash your hands and to always cover up your cough or sneeze, preferably with a face mask.

Keep these additional hygiene etiquette tips in mind:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • Don’t touch your mouth, nose or eyes with unwashed hands. If you do, immediately wash your hands before touching anything else.
  • Sanitize surfaces you may have coughed on or touched with contaminated hands.
  • Refrain from shaking hands, kissing or hugging.
  • If you’re sick, steer clear of others, especially those who are considered high-risk.

And again, if you’re feeling under the weather – please stay home (or keep your kids home from school). You’ll be doing your part to slow the spread of colds, the flu and COVID-19 if you just stay home and rest.

Think you might be sick, but not sure what to do?

When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of caution, especially if you’ve been in contact with someone who has already been sick. Stay home from school or work and call your doctor ahead of time before going in for an appointment.

Flu symptoms can include:

  • Fever.
  • Sore throat.
  • Body aches and chills.
  • Cough.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Runny or stuffy nose.
  • Headache.
  • Fatigue.
  • Sometimes diarrhea and vomiting.

COVID-19 symptoms can include:

  • Fever or chills.
  • Cough.
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
  • Muscle or body aches.
  • Headache.
  • New loss of taste or smell.
  • Sore throat.
  • Congestion or runny nose.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Rashes in some cases.


Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Person coughing into a tissue by window during sunny, summer day
June 4, 2024/Primary Care
Summer Sniffles: Winter Isn’t the Only Time You Can Catch a Cold

Enteroviruses are often to blame for summer colds, leading to a runny nose, sore throat and digestive symptoms

crowd of people at music concert
February 5, 2024/Infectious Disease
What Constitutes a ‘Superspreader Event’?

Any large social gathering — from a family birthday party to an indoor music concert — has the potential to spread serious infection

child getting a cough medicine dose by spoon
October 30, 2023/Children's Health
Cough Medicine and Kids: Safety and Alternatives To Stop the Cough

Kids under 4 shouldn’t use cough and cold medicine — older kids may or may not benefit

Person with hand over mouth, coughing, with hand on their chest.
Can Essential Oils Treat a Cough?

A couple essential oils may be used with caution, but there are safer and more effective options

Person swims with flotation device in hands while doing laps at indoor pool.
August 14, 2023/Lung
Can Indoor Pools Cause Chlorine Cough?

Germ-killing chemicals in the water can lead to respiratory issues

person sneezing while walking on sidewalk
July 10, 2023/Allergies
Why Do You Sneeze When You Look at the Sun?

ACHOO syndrome is your trigeminal nerve’s exaggerated response to bright light

Zombies and viruses side by side.
March 30, 2023/Infectious Disease
The Science Behind Zombie Viruses and Infections

The concept of infection is rooted in scientific truth

Person coughing in bed.
9 Ways To Stop Coughing at Night

Taking a warm shower before bed and drinking warm liquids throughout the day can help

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims