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Sneezing is your body’s way of clearing foreign substances out of your nose. Sometimes, all it takes is a shake of pepper or a particle of dust to get a sneeze going. But sneezing also transmits infectious diseases like:

Droplets expelled by coughing or sneezing can fly several feet. They can also hang in the air or rest on surfaces long enough to transmit an infection to someone else.

But by the time you feel that sneeze coming on, you only have seconds to react. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how easily a virus can be transmitted from one person to the next.

One way to help slow virus transmission is to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. The following hygiene practices are also just as important:

  • frequent handwashing
  • social distancing
  • wearing a facemask

Let’s break down the dos and don’ts of sneezing as well as other simple measures you can take to keep from transmitting germs that make people sick.

A 2020 study looked at different methods of covering your mouth while coughing.

The researchers found that long sleeves that cover your elbow greatly reduce the ejection of cough airflow into the environment compared to a bare arm.

Since sneezes also spew droplets, it makes sense to cover your mouth when you sneeze.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends sneezing into a tissue. Then you can throw it away and wash your hands clean.

But if you can’t get to a tissue in time, sneezing into your elbow is the next best thing. It definitely beats sneezing into the air or into your hand.

How to sneeze into your elbow

  • Move as far away from others as possible. If you’re stuck in close quarters, turn away.
  • Bury your nose and mouth in your inner elbow.
  • Sneeze, then wait a few seconds to see if there’s another sneeze on the way.
  • Keep in mind that your sleeve is now wet with sneeze droplets. Now’s not the time to hug or snuggle. If you touch your sleeve, wash your hands before touching anyone or anything.

Sneezing with a facemask

  • You can keep your facemask on while sneezing into your elbow.
  • If you have a spare mask, you can switch it out after a messy sneeze. Otherwise, it’s OK to keep wearing it.
  • Dispose of your soiled disposable mask or put your cloth mask in a plastic bag until laundry day.
  • Before putting your new mask on, thoroughly wash or disinfect your hands.

First, if you’re sick, you should not be around other people. But if you can’t isolate within your home, protect others by wearing a mask. Also:

  • Keep a box of tissues handy. Paper towels will also do.
  • Sneeze and cough into a tissue.
  • Throw it away.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before touching anything.

If you don’t have tissues, use the elbow method. Never sneeze into the air. Also avoid sneezing into your hands, which allows particles to escape into the air and back onto your hands.

If you want to see a sneeze in action, take a look at this video from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

No doubt, it’s hard to get them started. You’ll have to remind them the same way you must remind them to wash their hands after using the toilet or before eating dinner.

But once you get them on board, sneezing into their elbows will eventually become a habit.

  • Start early!
  • When you spot the wrong technique, gently guide their arm into position as you remind them how to do it right.
  • Model good behavior. Make sure adults and teens in the household are sneezing and coughing into their elbows.
  • Hold a practice session complete with fake sneezes to reinforce the habit. You can also do this using dolls, stuffed animals, or action figures.
  • Appeal to their sense of fair play. Tell them they’ll be helping others the way others are helping them.
  • Give them a big thumbs up when they do it right.

Here are a few short videos that might engage younger children in the process:

Sneezing into your elbow is good, but that’s not all it takes to stop the transmission of illness.

Wash your hands often

The best way is to use soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If you don’t have access to soap and water, use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.

Unless you’ve just washed your hands, avoid touching your:

  • nose
  • mouth
  • eyes

Carry hand sanitizer with you when you leave the house.

Mask up

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you should wear a facemask every time you’re around other people outside your household.

This virus can be transmitted to others when you talk, cough, or sneeze. The masks help stop droplets from spewing into the air.

Physical distance

A 2020 study showed that while facemasks greatly reduce virus transmission, they’re not foolproof.

Whenever possible, stay a minimum of 6 feet away from others and choose the outdoors over the meeting with people indoors. Face-to-face interactions increase the risk of transmitting COVID-19.

If you’ve tested positive for COVID-19, or just have symptoms, stay away from other people until you’ve recovered.

Close the lid before you flush

A 2020 study out of China found a possible fecal-oral transmission route for COVID-19.

The virus was detected in stool even after having cleared the respiratory tract. Flushing with the lid up can send particles flying into the air. Everyone in the family should close the lid before flushing.

When you feel a sneeze coming on, the best option is to:

  • Sneeze into a tissue.
  • Discard it.
  • Wash your hands.

When that’s not possible, put your nose and mouth into the crook of your arm. While not a perfect solution, it can drastically cut down on the number of moist droplets you let loose into the air and onto nearby surfaces.

It’s one way to help lower the chances of transmitting infectious diseases like COVID-19, but it’s not enough. The following hygiene practices are crucial to slowing the transmission of disease:

  • physical distancing
  • wearing face masks
  • isolating when you’re sick

The advice to sneeze into your elbow instead of your hand has been around for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic shows just how important this act is.