Why It’s So Important to Cover a Sneeze & Wash Your Hands

By now, we’re sure you’ve heard a million times about the importance of covering a sneeze or cough with your elbow or why you should be washing your hands more than usual and avoiding touching your face. You may have heard about it so many times, that it might be starting to fall on deaf ears but it’s still important. And because the United States has still not experienced a peak in cases, we all need to keep up these good practices.

Just hearing about why it’s important to do these things is one thing, though. As the saying goes, “seeing is believing,” which is why an old episode of the popular American television show “MythBusters” is gaining notice once again. 

In the episode “Flu Fiction,” the hosts, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, test out the best way to conceal a sneeze to limit the exposure, how easy it is to unknowingly contaminate everyone (and everything) with your germs, then how to safely make sure you expose as few people as possible to your germs if you have to interact with or be around a group of people. In this post, we’re going to focus on the sneezing part, but keep your eyes peeled for our next post which explores just how quickly germs can spread. 

 

The Art of Sneezing

 

In the experiment, the guys test out which is the best way to cover a sneeze: with your hand, into the crook of your elbow, or into a handkerchief. 

They test the three styles by placing food dye into their mouth then sniffing an irritating substance to provoke a sneeze. Each style gets a different colored food dye and is tested three times. They have white paper laid out along the floor in front of them with one-foot radial increments marked to show just how far the colored particles or “germs” travel with each sneeze. To see what a completely uncovered sneeze looks like, don’t worry they’ve tested that out for you too in this separate video. (Gross disclaimer: some “particles” end up 17 feet away.)

Maybe unsurprisingly, the open hand test shows particles that landed far and wide, with the furthest particle landing more than eight feet away.

While Adam’s hand is covered in the dye, the rest of his body is almost completely uncontaminated, meaning if he touches anything before washing or sanitizing his hands, he can continue to spread his germs even more. 

The elbow test fared much better than the hand test, with most of the particles ending up on Jamie or less than a foot away from him on the floor.

While it’s important to note that Jamie’s mouth and facial hair is also covered in the green “germs,” which means if he touches his face he could contaminate his hands and then potentially someone or something else, the chances of spread are fewer than by sneezing directly into your hand. 

“It’s all on my arm and not on my hand, so I’m not as likely to spread it around,” says Jamie.

For the final sneeze style, Adam sneezes into a cloth handkerchief, which at first shows promising signs of being the most effective method to cover a sneeze. But upon further inspection, the men discover the blue dye has fully penetrated to the other side of the handkerchief, contaminating Adam’s hand, meaning he’s more likely to spread his germs by contact if he doesn’t wash or sanitize immediately after. 

Adam also adds another element that hinders the handkerchief: the opportunity to keep contaminating yourself and others. 

“Imagine you sneeze in it all day long and you keep putting it in your pocket and pulling it back out, giving people change from your pocket, handing them your pen, handing them your phone, talking on your phone … SPREADING GERMS,” Adam emphasizes.

 

The Conclusion

After compiling the data, the men come to the conclusion that the best way to limit your exposure to others is by sneezing into the crook of your elbow. 

While this test proves sneezing into your elbow is the best sneezing style, ultimately the best way to limit your exposure and others’ exposure to germs is by limiting your interactions outside the house, especially in areas with the potential for mass transmission such as grocery stores, movie theaters, restaurants and places of worship. That’s why North Texas, along with most of the country, is under a shelter-in-place order to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

If it’s imperative that if you have to leave for work, travel or to purchase groceries or medication, remember to: 

  • Clean your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Put distance between yourself and other people — at least six feet.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others.
  • Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, steering wheels, toilets, faucets, and sinks.

If you or someone in your home feels sick, stay home and call a medical professional, and if someone in your household tests positive for the coronavirus, everyone in the household must stay home and quarantine for at least 14 days. 

Even if you’re young or healthy, we can all do our part to stop the spread of the coronavirus and potentially save the lives of those who are at high-risk of complications if they become ill. 

 

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