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Keep Your Droplets to Yourself!

November 14, 2012

“JOHNNY” yells his mother “How many times do I have to tell you to cover your mouth when you cough!” “Sorry mom!” Johnny yells back…. 


Growing up, my mom was a nurse. My brother and I just thought her reflexive “Cover your mouth”, “Wash your hands” was the nagging rite of passage nurse-moms have over their kids. We rarely responded with a “Yes, mom!” The usual response from us would be rolling of the eyes, shrugging of the shoulders and yelling “Whatever!” As an adult, a mom and in a career related to infection prevention and control, I realize my mom’s often repeated phrases to cover our mouths and wash our hands were in fact sound guidance not just to teach us good manners, but to help prevent the transmission of disease.

So what is the big deal about covering our mouths when we cough or sneeze? Oral or nasal secretions (snot, saliva, mucous, etc) infected with bacteria or viruses that cause the flu, the cold, strep throat and even the PLAGUE can travel on relatively large respiratory droplets when people sneeze, cough, drip, exhale and even speak! They travel only short distances before settling, usually less than 3 feet, but these droplets are loaded with infectious particles and if they enter the eyes, nose or mouth of another person….well, you get disease transmission. Basically, when someone coughs or sneezes directly into your face you’re eating or absorbing their mucous or snot…. Something I try to avoid at all costs!
More often, though, fomites (a fancy word for inanimate surfaces) are involved in transmission of disease. The droplets land on hands, toys, tables, mats, or other surfaces, where they sometimes remain infectious for hours. Hands (mine, yours, a teacher’s, a doctor’s, a nurse’s) that come in contact with these surfaces (doorknobs, telephones, pens, etc.) pick up the bugs from the surface and become contaminated. When the “dirty” hand touches the nose or eyes, the infection is able to enter the new person. 
Frequent hand hygiene with plain soap and water or the use of alcohol based hand sanitizers can help prevent droplet transmission. Hand hygiene is most important before eating and before touching the nose or eyes. However, cleaning or disinfecting commonly touched infected surfaces such as over bed tables, doorknobs, faucet handles, shared toys, mats in daycare and the steering wheels of our cars is also an important preventative step. If the surface is clean and free of bugs, it will decrease the chance of contaminating your hands and making yourself sick.

Be honest, do you actually cover your mouth if you sneeze or cough while driving? When was the last time you cleaned and disinfected your steering wheel? Do you eat in the car? Do you know what you have on your hands? I hope the next time you sneeze or cough - no matter where you are - you cover your mouth! Frankly, I don’t need the extra “protein” in my diet!
Bugging Off!

Nicole Kenny
Nicole Kenny along with Lee Nesbitt of Virox have a passion for infection prevention.  It has led them to author many articles for various trade magazines and journals.  They also provide webinars and seminars to educate the Infection Prevention and Environmental Services communities on the correct use of chemical disinfectants and their role in infection prevention.  Be sure to visit the "Talk Clean to Me Blog" for more information.
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