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Background: Respiratory hygiene

Article discussing why we sneeze, what to do when we sneeze, and some important points to remember.
cartoon image of lungs

Links to activities: respiratory hygiene and horrid hands.

It is important that good respiratory hygiene is taught from a young age, and that key messages are built on over time. This is especially important in the approach to the winter flu season each year, as infection rates increase and can lead to time off school and work.

  • Symptoms of colds include a headache, sore throat and fever, and sometimes a runny or blocked nose. Many sore throats from colds are due to the viruses in the throat making it feel raw. Influenza “flu” can make muscles feel sore and makes people very tired.
  • Colds can spread from person to person through the air, through person-to-person contact (hands!) or by touching contaminated surfaces. The virus can be spread by getting into the non-infected person’s nose or eyes because they touch their face with contaminated hands.
  • We can prevent common forms of the flu by getting a flu vaccination every year. Check this ECDC infographic on why a different flu vaccine is needed each year.
  • Another way of preventing the spread of cold and flu is learning how to successfully practice good respiratory hygiene when we cough or sneeze.

Why do we sneeze?

  • Sneezing is a way in which our bodies try to get rid of any harmful microbes and dust we might inhale.
  • The harmful microbes and dust get caught on the nose hair and tickle our nose. The nose sends a message to the brain which then sends a message back to our nose, mouth, lungs and chest telling them to blow the irritation away, or sneeze.
  • In the case of colds and flu, millions of virus particles rush out, spread through the air and contaminate the surface they land on; this could be our food, surfaces or hands.
Did you know? A sneeze can travel at 100mph through the air and spread cold/flu virus over 20 feet away from the infected person.

Person sneezing Photo credit: James Gathany CDC (Public Health Image Library)

Prevent the spread of harmful microbes from coughs or sneezes by:

  • Covering your mouth and nose with a tissue and binning the used tissue at once, to avoid spreading infection to surfaces, or other people.
  • If you don’t have a tissue, covering with your upper sleeve or elbow (not your hands).
  • Washing your hands well with soap and water, or hand sanitiser if this is not available.

Do the children you spend time with cover their mouths if they cough or sneeze, or is this something you have to teach them?

Let us know your experience in the comments below.

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