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Skip the handshake? The etiquette dos and don'ts of flu season

Whether you're at the office, on a plane or at a party, it may feel like you have to choose between being polite and staying healthy.
/ Source: TODAY

Social interactions just get trickier during cold and flu season.

Whether you're at the office, on a plane or at a party, it may feel like you have to choose between being polite and staying healthy. The sneeze virus cloud can travel many feet, so what should you do when a coworker in the next cubicle begins to sneeze violently? Or when someone you know has the flu reaches out to shake your hand? Or when you notice a friend double dipping at a party?

Etiquette expert Thomas Farley, aka Mister Manners, and NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar offered tips on how to stay flu-free while handling common social dilemmas.

1. Double dipping

You've probably seen the classic "Seinfeld" episode where George gets into trouble for dipping a chip in a communal bowl of dip, taking a bite, and then dipping the chip again. "That's like putting your whole mouth right in the dip," another character exclaims.

It's true, a 2009 study from Clemson University found that double dipping encourages the spread of germs. Bacteria is easily spread from mouth to dip — and salsa retained bacteria the longest.

RELATED: Do you double dip? 1 in 4 Americans admit to faux pas

The easy solution is to offer individual servings of dip or just have everyone spoon it onto their plates, Azar and Farley said.

If that's not possible, Azar turns whatever she's dipping around and draws attention to the fact that she has flipped, let's say a carrot, over before she double dips.

2. The sick coworker

You want to be the office good samaritan, Farley advised. So even if you’re not sick yourself, you may want to have cough drops, a pack of tissues, cough medicine and some hand sanitizer to share with colleagues who are under the weather.

"You’re helping prevent the spread of germs and you’re keeping yourself healthy," Farley said.

"You’re sending a subtle message, too, as you bring all that stuff out. You’re saying ‘You shouldn’t even be here,'" added TODAY's Matt Lauer.

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"You are," Farley confirmed. "If you’re the boss, definitely say, 'Go home.'"

Azar's strategy is to become a sort of illness detective. She'll ask the person: How long have you had that cough? Do you have a fever? Do you have a sore throat?

"I kind of want to gauge their level of infectivity," she said.

3. The sick passenger sitting next to you on a plane

Your fellow traveler may have a runny nose, but that doesn't mean you'll automatically get sick since you're not sharing utensils or anything other than maybe the arm rest, Azar said.

"My first instinct in that is just to turn yourself away because the way that person is going to infect you is if they cough and the aerosol gets into your mouth," she noted. "Keep your hand sanitizer there and just use it over and over again so that anything they touch or sneeze on, you don’t then touch and bring it to your own face."

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4. Shaking hands with someone who is sick

What should you do when approached by someone who is clearly under the weather?

"Don’t give someone the cold shoulder just because they have a cold," Farley advised. "As the person who is healthy, you never want to refuse somebody’s hand, even if you know they’re sick. But you get yourself to the washroom as quickly as you can to scrub up so then you don’t spread the germs to others."

RELATED: 5 things you still may not know about colds and the flu

If you have the flu, though, and someone wants to shake your hand, it’s best to gently say, "I’m so sorry, I’m not feeling well today, I don’t want to get you sick," Farley advised.

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