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Come on, people: Cover. Your. Mouths.

Ellen Seidman
January 29, 2015

I wanted to tell someone off during my train ride home the other night, and it wasn't because he was talking in the quiet car.

The guy sitting next to me was coughing without covering his mouth. I shot him a look; he didn't notice. When he coughed again, I decided to flee. I gave him the evil eye once more for good effect, then moved to the opposite end of the car, all the time thinking, What is wrong with you?! As in, I wasn't wondering what he was sick with but why he had the etiquette of a feral pig.

Free-form coughing is rampant. I constantly see people hacking away without covering their mouths: at malls, at restaurants, and recently at a cocktail party. Then there's the pseudo cover-up—you know, people who place a fist close to their mouths, so that germs hit their hand then spray onto people nearby, which happened to a colleague on a commute. "I felt the droplets!" she says, still traumatized weeks later.

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News that's nothing to, er, cough at: Recent research from MIT shows that droplets from a cough or sneeze are transmitted far further than once thought. High-speed imaging of coughs and sneezes showed that they mingle with air around them and became a big cloud of germs, one that can float along for as much as eight feet before dissipating.

Previous data suggests that every cough transmits up to 3,000 teeny-tiny droplets. Yeah, that dude sitting next to me pelted me with thousands of his germs. With the flu virus running rampant, it's not just rude to not cover your mouth, it's dangerous. Wouldn't it be great to see train conductors or cops handing out "Public health nuisance" tickets to coughers who didn't cover up?

For the record: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends holding a tissue over your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Next best thing is coughing or sneezing into your upper sleeve or elbow. Thing is, hackers gonna hack, hack, hack, hack, hack, to quote Taylor Swift.

So then there's this protective strategy that Leigh Vinocur, MD, an ER physician from the American College of Emergency Physicians, recommended on the TODAY Show: If someone near you sneezes or coughs, turn away and hold your breath for 10 to 15 seconds (yes, the doc said "minutes" by mistake) and don't take in as deep breaths. Also: Steer clear of close talkers, Dr. Vinocur said.

Sure, I'll hold my breath around a cougher who was raised by feral pigs. But come on, people: Cover. Your. Mouths.

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