Why You Should Cover Your Cough (and Sneezes)

It's not just good manners to cover your cough. Doing so helps reduce the spread of germs including the highly contagious influenza virus. The flu and some other infections are spread through microscopic water droplets expelled from an infected person, commonly through coughing, sneezing, and hand-to-mouth contact.

Aside from washing your hands with warm water and soap (for 20 seconds) or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, one of the most important and effective ways to stop the spread of germs is to cover your cough and sneeze. An uncovered cough or sneeze can send infected droplets up to six feet away and remain airborne for several hours. The live virus can also live on surfaces for up to 48 hours.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that proper hygiene etiquette practices can help prevent the spread of illnesses, including influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), whooping cough, and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

Senior man coughing into elbow.
DjelicS / Getty Images

Covering Your Cough

The idea is to cover your mouth when you cough (or sneeze) so the germs in your body are not propelled into the air or across the room, which could make others sick.

It's not difficult to cover your cough. But, as simple as it is, there is a right and wrong way to do it.

  • Cough into your bent elbow

  • Cough into tissue

  • Wash hands before touching doorknobs and other surfaces

  • Use hand sanitizer

  • Cough into the air

  • Cough into bare hands

  • Cough on other people

  • Touch doorknobs and other surfaces after coughing into hands

Putting your hand in front of your mouth to cover your cough is not advised. When you do this, the germs will then spread onto everything you touch, including surfaces like remote controls and doorknobs, but also things like food you serve and hands you shake. Put another way, your attempt to halt the spreading of germs will be moot.

The CDC recommends coughing into a tissue and throwing the tissue in the garbage. Then, wash your hands with soap or use hand sanitizer just in case any germs were transmitted from the tissue onto your skin.

If you don't have a tissue handy, the next best option is coughing into the crook of your elbow. This is obviously simple, but it may take time to make a habit. It's worth it, as this practice dramatically drops the odds of you spreading those germs.

Covering Sneezes

It's important to use good cough hygiene to cover sneezes as well. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) used high-speed cameras to track the respiratory cloud of droplets expelled by sneezing and found the force of a sneeze has the potential to spreads germs even further than coughs.

A sneeze can send water droplets speeding through the air at a rate of 30-yards per second. Larger particles typically drop out of the air in a matter of seconds and can land up to six feet away. Small particles, however, can stay airborne up to 24 hours and travel as far as eight yards.

Covering your mouth when you sneeze with your elbow or tissue will greatly reduce the number of germs that are able to spread to people and objects around you. Even if your illness doesn't seem very bad to you, it could be much more serious for someone who catches your germs. 

Using a Face Mask

There are some instances when using a face mask to protect others from being exposed to your germs is probably best—for example, if you're going to the doctor to get evaluated and can't stop coughing in the office. Many medical facilities provide disposable masks for this very reason; some even mandate their use.

Use the mask to cover your mouth and nose making sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask. Try to avoid touching the mask while using it; if you do, clean your hands. If the mask gets damp, replace it. Do not reuse disposable masks.

When removing the mask, take it off from the back without touching the front. Used masks should be discarded immediately in a closed bin. After taking off the mask, disinfect your hands once again.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. How flu spreads. Updated August 27, 2018

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coughing & sneezing: hygiene etiquette & practice. Reviewed July 26, 2016

  3. Bourouiba L, Dehandschoewercker E, Bush J. Violent expiratory events: On coughing and sneezingJ Fluid Mech. 2014;745:537–563. doi:10.1017/jfm.2014.88

  4. Fernandez MO, Thomas RJ, Garton NJ, Hudson A, Haddrell A, Reid JP. Assessing the airborne survival of bacteria in populations of aerosol droplets with a novel technology. J R Soc Interface. 2019;16(150):20180779. doi:10.1098/rsif.2018.0779

  5. World Health Organization. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: When and how to use masks.

By Kristina Duda, RN
Kristina Duda, BSN, RN, CPN, has been working in healthcare since 2002. She specializes in pediatrics and disease and infection prevention.