Please Cover Your Mouth When You Sneeze

We've still got a few months until flu season starts here in the United States, so that should give us plenty of time to review proper cold and flu procedures. Why? Well, it appears that a number of you are just not getting it right. Yesterday I read a complaint from someone whose co-worker preferred to sneeze into the office instead of on his computer keyboard (hasn't he ever heard of tissues?). And then there was a study presented this week at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in which one out of four people observed in public failed to cover their mouths when sneezing or coughing. Ew.

The study was done in New Zealand, so I'm not sure it translates perfectly to the United States, but the results are disturbing nonetheless. The researchers observed people in a train station, a mall and a hospital in Wellington and recorded coughs and sneezes. They found that 64.4 percent of coughs and sneezes were covered by hands, 4.7 percent were covered with a tissue, hankie or elbow (the recommended method), and 26.7 percent went uncovered.

I will admit to the occasional uncovered cough or sneeze. Sometimes the urge catches you too quickly to respond, or your hands are too full to do anything. But people who regularly cough and sneeze out into the open air are a public health menace, spreading germs to the rest of us. Think I'm making too much of this? Check out this video from a recent episode of Mythbusters in which they tested the myths that a sneeze can travel at a speed of 100 miles per hour and reach a distance of 30 feet. It turns out the numbers are an exaggeration, but the truth is still pretty gross.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.