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Prevent Flu: Cover Up When You Say Achoo!

To avoid spreading flu germs, cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

It's every mother's mantra: Cover your mouth when you cough. During flu season, it's the best advice you can give any child -- or adult - who wants to avoid the flu.

The flu virus is passed from one person to the other through fluids from mouth and nose secretions. When we cough and sneeze, those droplets go into the air.

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"It's our responsibility to cover mouth and nose so those droplets don't go into the air... so they don't spread to other people," says James Mamary, MD, a pulmonologist with Temple Lung Center at Temple University Health System in Philadelphia.

"You should sneeze into a tissue or paper towel," he tells WebMD. "If you don't have those with you, you can sneeze into the crook of your elbow. Just make sure you put that clothing into the wash at night."

Keep that stuff off your hands -- so there's no chance you will spread flu germs to another surface, Mamary advises. Otherwise, your dirty hand will touch a door knob or elevator button. Some unlucky person will touch that knob or button, and now he's got it. The nasty cycle of the flu virus spreads on.

Making It Work at the Office: Crisis on the Elevator

Here's a familiar scenario: The elevator is crowded, and someone's sneezing. What can you do to protect yourself? To avoid those flying flu droplets, here's Mamary's advice: "Turn your face away. Put your sleeve or your hands over your face."

Another tack: "I think that courteously asking the person to cover up. Some adults don't know better. We can educate them. Hopefully we can do it in a civil, discrete way. A smile, a hand over the face, and a wink can do the same thing. Or tap them on the shoulder. It's just a friendly reminder."

In today's world, "we have the responsibility for each other's health," he tells WebMD. "After all, 30 or 20 or 10 years ago, we didn't ask people to stop smoking in public but now we do. Hopefully we won't have to legislate that you can't sneeze or cough in the air."

Covering up is "part of being a good citizen, a nice person," Mamary says. "It's taking care of yourself, your family. It's part of being polite; part of being responsible. I think a lot of people just forget. They're busy in their own thoughts. A cough is a reflex, and they don't even think [about] what's going on."

Making It Work at School: Listen to Teacher

Kids should be sneezing or coughing into a tissue, but what kid has a tissue in his pocket? Coughing or sneezing into the crook of the elbow is fine for them, too.

"It should be part of the routine of everyday life, and needs daily reinforcement," Mamary says. "It's kind of like saying please and thank you. It's that important."

Kids should be reminded at school, says Rachel Orscheln, MD, an infectious disease specialist and pediatrician at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "There should be flyers up. Teachers should remind them that if they cough or sneeze, they should cover their mouths and nose, and wash their hands."

Reviewed on October 01, 2010

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