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Many People Still Not Covering Coughs, Sneezes

July 13, 2010

Most people fail to properly prevent the spread of contagious and infectious germs when coughing and sneezing, according to a study by medical students in New Zealand.

For the study, the students secretly watched hundreds of people cough or sneeze at a train station, a shopping mall and a hospital. What they noticed was far from sanitary.

The study took place in the capital city of Wellington over a two week period last August, during the tail end of the swine flu illness. It was a period when the pandemic made international headlines and public health officials were pleading for children and adults to be careful about spreading the virus.

There was both good news and bad news with the study. The good news was that about 75 percent of people tried to cover their cough or sneeze in an attempt to prevent the spread of germs. The bad news is that most people, however, used their hands to do it. The researchers found that about two in three people covered their mouth and nose with their hands when they coughed or sneezed.

“When you cough into your hands, you cover your hand in virus,” said study author Nick Wilson, an associate professor of public health at the Otago University campus in Wellington.

Once you get the virus into your hands, “you touch doorknobs, furniture and other things.” And once other people touch those things, they can pick up the virus just as easily, he explained.

Health officials say the proper way to cover your cough or sneeze is to raise your elbow to your face, sometimes called the “ËœDracula’ move, for its resemblance to a vampire suddenly drawing up his cape. But only about 1 in 77 people did that, the researchers observed.

Using a tissue or a handkerchief is another useful method, but only about 3 percent of people do that, based on the study.

Wilson said the team, which logged 384 sneezes and coughs, was “a bit grossed out” by the actions of many of those people. They also observed on several occasions people spitting on the floor, even at the hospital.

Wilson called the findings surprising, especially for the fact that it occurred just four months after the virus was first identified, when it was still considered quite dangerous.

Coughing and sneezing into hands might be fine if people promptly washed and/or disinfected their hands afterwards, but nobody believes that is happening.

The study was presented at an Atlanta conference on infectious diseases on Monday.

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