Control your mucus

The Pediatric Insider

© 2010 Roy Benaroch, MD

Germs love warm, sticky mucus. If you want to spread them around, spray your coughs and sneezes like a cropduster. Alternatively, you could sneeze or cough on your own hands, then smear the ick on doorknobs. Either way, the germs win.

At the height of last year’s novel-H1N1 epidemic, researchers in New Zealand wanted to see if people in public places were taking public health advice seriously. Dozens of medical students surreptitiously watched people in a hospital, shopping mall, and a train station to see how they sneezed and coughed, observing and taking notes on 384 mucus-producing events. The results, as reported here:

  • 65% covered their mouths and nose with their own hands, ensuring their ability to wipe their infectious germs on the next unsuspecting doorknob or stranger.
  • 27% didn’t cover anything at all—they just let ‘er rip!
  • 3% sneezed into tissues or handkerchiefs.
  • 1% sneezed or coughed into their own elbows, Dracula-style. This is what my kids were taught to do in kindergarten. It looks weird, but it prevents snot from spraying without getting a child’s hands covered with infectious goo.

So: the vast majority of people observed in this study did nothing to prevent the spread of disease. Somehow, I’m not surprised.

We could all do a better job at keeping our germs to ourselves. Some simple, effective steps:

  • Stay home if you’re sick, and keep your kids home if they’re sick.
  • Get your family vaccinated against influenza, and encourage your friends and neighbors to do this too. The more of us who are vaccinated, the better protection we all have.
  • Wash hands frequently, and use an alcohol-based hand gel between washings.
  • Finally: Be in control of your mucus! Teach children to sneeze into their elbows, and use a tissue to prevent your germs from spreading. And throw away those tissues afterwards—don’t just wad them up somewhere.

We’re all in this together, folks. Let’s do what we can to stay a bit healthier and less sticky this winter.

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