Show Your Child How to Sneeze and Cough Correctly

Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on November 19, 2022

Learning how to cough and sneeze the right way helps keep germs from spreading. These include cold and flu viruses, as well as the virus that causes COVID-19.

It’s more likely to become a lifelong habit when you start teaching them early. Here’s what they need to know.

Tell your kids to follow these steps whenever they have to cough or sneeze:

  • Try to cover your nose and mouth with clean tissue.
  • If you don’t have tissue, cough or sneeze into the inside of your elbow.
  • Put the used tissue in the trash.
  • Wash your hands right away.

Then show them these five easy handwashing steps:

1. Wet your hands. It doesn’t matter if the water is hot or cold. Then grab the soap. It doesn’t have to be antibacterial -- regular soap is just fine. 

2. Lather. Next, rub your hands together to make bubbles. Don’t forget the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. 

3. Scrub. Keep scrubbing for a least 20 seconds. Sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice or another favorite to keep track of the time. 

4. Rinse well. Put your hands back under the running water to get all the soap off. 

5. Dry. Wipe your hands with a clean cloth or paper towel. It’s also OK to let them air dry.

If there’s no running water, show them how to use hand sanitizer. It doesn’t get rid of as many germs, but it’s better than nothing. Follow these steps:

  • Use enough sanitizer to cover the front and back of your hands and between your fingers.
  • Rub your hands together until they feel dry (about 20 seconds).
  • Don’t rinse or wipe off the sanitizer before it dries.

Any hand sanitizer you use should have at least 60% alcohol. Don’t use baby wipes in place of handwashing or hand sanitizer. They don’t get rid of germs. Tell your child to wash their hands with soap and water as soon as they can.

When teaching children, it's always a good idea to show them what to do and lead by example. Here are a few ideas:

  • Use a doll or stuffed animal to show them how to cough and sneeze the right way.
  • Ask them to practice with pretend coughs and sneezes.
  • Draw messages and pictures and put them around the house.
  • Find a story or video that supports what you’re trying to teach.
  • Make it a game.
  • Make up a song set to a familiar tune, like “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
  • Remind them often how to cough and sneeze the right way.
  • Let them know this helps keep them feeling good so they don’t miss birthday parties and other fun activities.
  • Remind them that even though we can’t see germs, it’s still important to cough and sneeze the right way to protect others.
  • Be patient with them -- it takes time to learn good habits.

Show Sources


CDC: “Hygiene Etiquette & Practice: Coughing and Sneezing,” “Teaching Children About the Flu,” “When and How to Wash Your Hands,” “Handwashing: A Family Activity.”

Snohomish Health District: “Illness Prevention Activities for Children.”

City of Berkeley Public Health: “Teaching Healthy Habits—Make Them Fun.”

Mayo Clinic: “Infectious Diseases A-Z: Teach your kids cough etiquette.”

American Academy of Pediatrics: “Keep kids’ hands clean with soap and water, not antibacterial products.”

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