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Health Fact Sheets

Respiratory Etiquette

During the cough, cold and "flu" season, there are some simple tips that will keep respiratory infections from spreading. You can help stop the spread of these germs by practicing "respiratory etiquette" — good health manners — such as covering your nose and mouth every time you sneeze, cough or blow your nose, putting used tissues in the trash, and washing your hands well and often whenever you or someone you are close to is sick. These simple actions can prevent the spread of the viruses and bacteria that are passed from person-to-person in the tiny droplets of moisture that come out of the nose or mouth of an infected person when they cough, sneeze, or talk. Examples of diseases that can spread this way include influenza, bacterial meningitis, whooping cough, SARS, measles, and chicken pox. Common symptoms of these illnesses are fever and cough or fever and rash.

In hospitals and waiting rooms, respiratory etiquette means that patients and visitors with fever and cough or rash may be asked to wash their hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, to wear a mask or to use tissues when coughing or sneezing, and to sit a safe distance (three feet or more) away from other patients.

The Tennessee Department of Health has adapted some informational posters and bookmarks with permission from the Vermont Department of Health. The "Ask for a Mask!" poster is designed to be placed prominently in public areas, such as hospital lobbies or emergency departments. The bookmarks explain the basics of respiratory etiquette: cover your mouth and nose with a tissue every time you sneeze or cough; put used tissues into the trash; wash hands well and often with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.  There is also a poster for children about good health manners can help prevent the spread of illness. You candownload a PDF version of these materials in English or in Spanish.  

There are also some other simple precautions that healthy people can take to prevent catching germs from others:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand cleaner.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Don’t share food, utensils, beverage containers, lipstick, cigarettes or anything else that might be contaminated with respiratory germs.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick if possible.