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 hygiene etiquette, it’s now.

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A tough cold and flu season has put most of us on high alert. And the threat of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is enough to make the most tranquil person lose their cool.

But rest assured, there are polite, considerate and safe ways to manage your symptoms, while also protecting those around you.  

Here’s what you need to know if you find yourself coughing or sneezing in public.

How to protect others from getting sick, too  

If you’re coughing or sneezing in public, particularly in a healthcare space like a waiting room or the ER, you may be asked to wear a mask. Try not to take offense to this – it’s for everyone’s safety, including your own.

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If you’re not wearing a mask, follow these guidelines:

  • 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 infection 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.

More hygiene etiquette tips for when you’re sick:

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  • Wash your hands often. (We’re talking multiple times a day!)
  • Don’t touch your mouth, nose, eyes or ears. If you do, immediately wash your hands.  
  • 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 healthy people around you, especially those with a weaken immune system, or anyone with heart or lung problems.

And if you’re feeling under the weather – please please please stay home (or keep your kids home from school). You’ll be doing your part if you stay home and rest. Don’t drag the germs into public with you. 

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

When in doubt, it is 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.

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