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Issue 98: Cover Your Mouth!

There’s good news and bad news when it comes to people covering their mouths when they sneeze or cough. The good news is that hearing the command, “Cover your mouth!” as a kid has taken hold—since three out of four people observed in busy public places in New Zealand did, indeed, cover their mouths when they sneezed or coughed. 

The bad news, however, is that most of the people observed—about two out of three—used their hands to cover their mouths when they sneezed or coughed. What’s wrong with that? Plenty. The sneezers and coughers just slathered their hands in germs—the very ones they were attempting not to spread by covering their mouths. That wouldn’t be so bad if the people went and washed their hands immediately after sneezing or coughing, but that wasn’t the case.

This “mouth covering” exhibition was all part of a larger study. The study’s author, Nick Wilson, associate professor of public health at the Otago University campus in Wellington, says, “When you cough into your hands, you cover your hands in viruses. Then you touch doorknobs, furniture and other things. And other people touch those and get viruses that way.”

Incidentally, some viruses can live from 20 minutes up to 2 hours or more on surfaces like doorknobs, desks, computer keyboards and other objects. Likewise, one single bacterium cell can become more than 8 million cells in less than 24 hours—and the number of bacteria it takes to make people sick can range from as few as 10 up to millions. Infections spread when germs are transferred from a contaminated item to your hands to your body.

Now back to the study…it enlisted medical students to watch hundreds of people sneeze or cough at a train station, a shopping mall and a hospital. It wasn’t a shining example as far as germ-spreading prevention, either. Most people failed to prevent “an airborne explosion of infectious germs.”

So how should you cover your mouth? Sneeze or cough into your elbow—a move often referred to as “the Dracula,” since it mimics how vampires are depicted when drawing up their cape. Alas, only about 1 in 77 of the people observed did this, though.

Or…you can sneeze into a tissue. Most people don’t do this, either, and their hands become covered with the very germs they’re trying to halt. Of those observed, only about 1 in 30 used a tissue.

But wait. There’s more. The researchers didn’t actually report the numbers for this, but they also observed several people spit on the floor—including the floors at the hospital. Yuck.

The study was presented at an infectious diseases conference in Atlanta.

 

This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.


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