We all know that it’s important to cover our mouths when we sneeze, but did you know that how we cover our mouths is almost just as important?
When you feel that familiar twitch in your nose coming on, the best thing you can do is to lean into your elbow- not your hand. This has been the recommendation from top organizations including the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Public Health Association for years, but it’s still not common knowledge to many adults.
There is some debate as to whether sneezing into a tissue or into your elbow is better, but the general consensus is that your elbow is the best bet because a tissue can’t block all of your germs from reaching your hand.
Dr. Vincent Hill, chief of the waterborne disease prevention branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says that the recommendation has been around for about 10 to 15 years.
“If somebody sneezes into their hands, that creates an opportunity for those germs to be passed on to other people, or contaminate other objects that people touch,” he says.
What about if no one’s around- are you then free to sneeze as you please without risking anyone else’s health?
Not at all. Research has found that droplets from a sneeze can travel up to four meters and can remain in the air for 45 minutes! To keep your germs to yourself and away from everyone else, be sure to always implement the elbow sneeze.
Even though the information has been around for over a decade, many adults aren’t aware of it because they grew up being taught to sneeze into their hands. Children, however, are being taught the “Dracula Cough” (named because the cough looks like Dracula pulling his cape!) in school so are more familiar with it than their parents.
This cute video, put out by the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children at Presbyterian St./Luke's Medical Center, highlights the importance of using the Dracula Cough to prevent the spread of germs. It also tells kids about other steps they can take to prevent getting sick, including eating a healthy diet, getting a good sleep, and exercising.
Mary Anne Jackson, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, says she believes the elbow cough origins began around 2003 when fears surrounding SARS were high and gained further importance during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009.
While a sneeze may not seem like anything to get too worked up about, research has shed light on just how far reaching a sneeze can be. In 2014, a group of researchers from MIT showed that a sneeze doesn’t just release infectious droplets but actually a whole cloud of gas. This cloud can help to carry the droplets 5 to 200 times further than they could travel on their own. This video clip put out by MIT demonstrates the cloud of gas in action.
Experts point out that even the best executed elbow cough can’t eliminate the spread of germs, but it definitely helps lower the risk.
Another key step in staying healthy and minimizing the spread of germs is hand washing, and studies have shown that most of us are doing it wrong or not doing it at all. A 2007 study showed that a whopping 93.2% of people don’t wash their hands after coughing or sneezing! Another study showed that the average hand washing time of the 3749 people surveyed was 6 seconds, less than 1/3 of the recommended time.
So how should we be washing our hands? The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention offers the following guidelines.
When you should wash your hands:
- Before, during, and after preparing food
- Before eating food
- Before and after caring for someone who is sick
- Before and after treating a cut or wound
- After using the toilet
- After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
- After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
- After touching garbage
How you should clean your hands:
- Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
- Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
- Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.
They also created this video to show you exactly how to wash your hands. If you don’t have clean water or soap available, the CDC recommends cleaning hands with a hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol, though it cautions that sanitizers will not likely remove all bacteria or harmful chemicals like pesticides and heavy metals.
The CDC also offers the following tips to avoid the spread of germs: throwing used tissues into the garbage immediately after using them; avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth; getting an annual flu shot; and keeping surfaces clean and disinfected.
It’s also best to stay home when you’re sick, if possible. The flu virus is contagious one day before you start feeling the symptoms, so there’s not much you can do there, but you can remain contagious for up to seven days after your symptoms begin. Do your best to stay away from the general public, and especially children, the elderly, and anyone with a previous illness, until you’re feeling better.