Why You Should 'Cover Your Cough'

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

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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).

Aside from washing your hands with soap or using hand sanitizer, one of the most important and effective ways to stop the spread of germs is to "cover your cough."

Cover Your Cough

It's not difficult to cover your cough, but there is a right and wrong way to do it. The idea is to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze so the germs in your body don't go flying into the air or across the room where they will make someone else sick.

But putting your hand in front of your mouth to cover your cough is actually not the best way to do it. When you cough into your hand, the germs will then spread onto everything you touch with your hands, which sort of defeats the purpose since you may be shaking hands with people or touching food, doorknobs and other surfaces.

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 hands.

If you don't have a tissue handy, the next best place is in the inside of your elbow. Once you get used to coughing into the crook of your elbow, it is just as easy as coughing into your hand. Since you probably won't be trying to open any doors with your elbow, the chance of spreading those germs drops dramatically.

How To Cover Your Cough Correctly

Do

  • Cough into your bent elbow

  • Cough into tissue

  • Wash hands before touching doorknobs and other surfaces

  • Use hand sanitizer

Don't

  • Cough into the air

  • Cough into bare hands

  • Cough on other people

  • Touch doorknobs and other surfaces after coughing into hands

Cover Coughs and Sneezes

In addition to covering coughs, it's important to cover sneezes as well. Researchers at 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 at as well.

Covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze with your elbow or a 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. 

This simple step could protect many people from getting sick. And it's so simple that you can teach even young children to do it. Practicing this habit yourself and encouraging others to do it as well can cut down on the spread of contagious respiratory illnesses in our communities.

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Article Sources

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

  2. 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