How to sneeze and cough the right way during the COVID-19 pandemic

Cough and sneeze properly and minimize the risk that you’ll spread dangerous germs. Here’s what the experts recommend.
Right way to Sneeze
Coughing or sneezing into the inside of your elbow is the best way to limit the spread of germs.TODAY illustration / Getty Images

I’m a frequent sneezer. I sneeze when the air is cold. I sneeze when the sun gets in my eyes. I sneeze for no apparent reason.

Most of the time, my sneezy tendencies aren’t a big deal. But in a pandemic, they’re a problem.

That’s because I could be contagious with COVID-19 without knowing it or noticing any symptoms. And my sneezes could spew germ-filled droplets out into the air, where they could infect other people.

“What seems to spread this virus is force. If there’s a lot of force in your cough or sneeze, people standing close to you can inhale these droplets that stay in the atmosphere for a period of time,” Neysa Ernst, nurse manager of the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit, told TODAY.

Don’t feel well? Don’t go out

First, stay home if you’re sick. “If you have reason to believe your coughing and sneezing is because of a respiratory infection, you really shouldn’t be out and about,” Dr. Graham Snyder, medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told TODAY. Do your coughing or sneezing in private so you don’t infect others.

3 steps to a safer sneeze or cough

If you’re coughing or sneezing because your fall allergies are kicking in, some dust or pollen hit your nose or throat, or just because you feel a cough or sneeze coming on, here’s what to do.

  1. “Get as far away from other humans as you can,” Ernst said. “It’s a matter of minimizing the chance for infectious spread. When you have to cough or sneeze, getting as far away from other people as you can is really important.”
  2. Keep your mask on to help contain the droplets from your sneeze or cough.
  3. With your mask on, sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow. “That’s the same respiratory etiquette as before COVID-19,” Snyder said. Coughing or sneezing into the inside of your elbow is the best way to limit the spread of germs.

If you have a spare mask available, you might want to replace your mask. If not, it’s OK to keep wearing it. “I don’t think it substantially changes the risk to people around you, but it may be significantly soiled,” Snyder said. In either case, wash or replace your mask daily.

After you’ve sneezed or coughed inside of your elbow, you don’t need to worry too much about your shirt, Snyder said. That’s because it’s unlikely the inside of your elbow will contact other surfaces.

“That’s why the inside of the elbow is preferable to the hand,” Snyder said. If you cough or sneeze into your hand and touch something, you can contaminate a surface. Someone else could touch that surface and potentially become sick.

One more tip: If you suffer from seasonal allergies, take your medication as directed to minimize coughing and sneezing.

What if you aren’t wearing a mask?

You should be wearing your mask any time you’re with people you don’t live with, even when you’re with people you know. The risk of infection from coughing, sneezing or even talking is lower when you’re wearing a mask.

If you aren’t wearing a mask when you cough or sneeze — say you’re home or you’re driving — cough or sneeze into a tissue. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow. Always wash your hands after you cough or sneeze.