April 15, 2021/Infectious Disease

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.


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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.

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