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Peggy Post's Guide to Modern Manners: Sneezing in Public

Your trickiest etiquette questions answered.

Question: One of the women in my exercise class doesn't cover her nose or mouth when she sneezes. I try to stay on the other side of the room to avoid her, but we usually go out for coffee once or twice a month with other friends from class. Is there anything I can do or say?

Answer: Don't be afraid to speak up. Sneezing into a tissue (or, if there isn't one available, the inside crook of the elbow) is basic hygiene and important in helping prevent the spread of the H1N1 flu virus and other airborne illnesses. A good habit is to always have a packet of tissues and a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you.

There's not a lot you can do during exercise class; that's not the place to bring up sneezing etiquette. But when you're out having coffee with your classmate and she sneezes, hand her a package of tissues and say, "Are you getting a cold? These can help you keep it from spreading." If she doesn't take the hint, add, "Covering your nose and sneezing into a tissue really can prevent the spread of germs."

Remember to keep these basic rules in mind, especially during flu season. When you feel a sneeze or cough coming on, cover your mouth and nose with a handkerchief or tissue—or your napkin, if that's the only thing within reach. In an emergency, you can cover your mouth and nose with your hands—but be sure to immediately wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. And when you're having a meal, excuse yourself from the table to blow your nose. If you can't seem to stop coughing or sneezing, and you are with a group of people, excuse yourself and move away until it passes. These small acts prevent germs from spreading—a crucial act of politeness!

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