9 Must-Know Cough Etiquette Tips

Cough Etiquette Tips
Since the coronavirus pandemic, we have all become much more aware of the hygiene and etiquette surrounding the respiratory illness. There are a number of simple rules to follow to politely contain your coughs and sneezes: cover your mouth, wash your hands, wear a mask, and isolate if possible.

1. Cover Your Mouth

use tissue to cover your mouth
Use tissue or handkerchief to cover your mouth

The best way to avoid spreading germs when coughing is to cover your mouth with a receptacle that can be washed or thrown away.

If you have a handkerchief, this is a good option as it can be reused; if you don’t have one on hand, it’s best to use tissues.

In England, they use the phrase ‘Catch it, Bin it, Kill it’ – meaning catch the germs and then throw them away into a waste receptacle such as a trash can. It’s a good mantra to remember.

2. Elbows, not Hands

use elbow to cough or sneeze
Use elbow to cough or sneeze

If you don’t have a tissue handy, the best way is to cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your hands. Hand hygiene is very important since they are used to touch everything and are the biggest spreaders of germs.

Coughing into your elbow catches any germs in an area that is unlikely to come into close contact with other people or objects.

3. Wash Your Hands!

After a cough or sneeze, the next step of infection prevention is disinfecting yourself through hand washing.

The best way is with soap and water, though hand sanitizer or alcohol-based hand rub is a good substitute if you’re out and about.

Preventing germs from spreading further is the best method of public health infection control, so it is essential hygiene/cough etiquette to wash your hands ASAP after a coughing fit.

4. The Mask Question

Masks are an effective, safe, and easy method of preventing the spread of germs and respiratory diseases.

Healthcare personnel have been wearing procedure masks for decades in many countries. Especially in east Asia, wearing masks was a common way of warding off respiratory infection even before the coronavirus pandemic.

use mask when you have cough
Use mask when you have cough

If you have the symptoms of a respiratory infection (including respiratory secretions, coughing fits, or sneezes), it should be a standard precaution to throw on a surgical mask to prevent the spread of the disease to others in your surroundings.

5. Ventilation is Important

One of the most important factors for preventing the spread of germs is having well-ventilated rooms.

It has been proven that infectious diseases, especially things like SARS and coronavirus, spread far more quickly in rooms without proper ventilation.

Obviously, you can’t always control the ventilation of places you are visiting. However, there are things you can control. If you are sick and meeting vulnerable people, try to meet in well-ventilated places or, even better, outside.

Avoid crowded, stuffy waiting areas or small rooms; take yourself outside if you need to cough or sneeze.

6. Excuse Yourself

If you have a coughing or sneezing fit, the polite thing to do is excuse yourself. Take yourself out of the room and don’t return until the fit has subsided. It lowers the chance of exposing your companions to the spread of respiratory illness.

Coughing and sneezing are unpleasant to listen to, especially at dinner or in the middle of a social event such as a show. Excusing yourself reduces the impact on those around you.

7. Keep your Hands to Yourself

Avoid touching anything that could spread your germs when sick, especially pets or children!

We’ve all developed the sense not to go near people who might be vulnerable (such as the elderly or those with immune system deficiencies), but we often forget that children and animals might come in contact with us and then approach them.

It can be tempting to stroke a dog that comes to say hi in the park or to high-five a cute kid smiling at you. But when sick, keep your hands to yourself – it’s the safest way!

8. Stay Home

The best way to prevent the spread of disease is to stay at home.

Healthcare facilities and providers will likely be able to offer a guideline for isolation precautions. Vaccines are a great preventative, but the best way of stopping the spread, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is to isolate.

This can be frustrating, especially if you don’t feel sick enough to stay home from work or social events. But in the age of remote working, most people can continue being productive from their home offices; and it’s better to have a bowl of healthy soup and miss a single party or dinner rather than spreading your sickness to your whole social group!

9. Consult a Doctor

If you are very unwell, consult a doctor.

Most coughs, colds, or flues do not require medical intervention; however, if your coughing lasts for a long time or prevents you from living a normal life, it is always best to check in with your doctor.

What are the five elements of respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette?

  • Cover your face with a tissue, handkerchief, or your elbow
  • Wash your hands after a coughing fit or touching your face
  • Wear a mask in public areas
  • Stick to well-ventilated areas
  • When possible, stay home when you are sick to stop the spread

When is it appropriate to cough in a public place?

Having a single cough or sneeze in a public place is usually acceptable. They are a natural part of life, and as long as you are polite (covering your mouth, not coughing near somebody’s face or food), it is acceptable.

However, coughing continuously, especially in certain environments, can be very rude. If this occurs, try to excuse yourself until you are able to carry on.

Jack Fairey

Jack is a writer based in west London, England. He is a keen traveler, and has a particular interest in the fascinating differences in etiquette across the world. When not writing, he can be found dreaming up his next trip to far off places.

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