Remember the Before-Times, when the standard response to somebody sneezing in your vicinity was a polite “gesundheit?”
Except these days, we know the coronavirus can be spread from person to person through respiratory droplets when someone who has it sneezes, coughs or talks. And that those droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people nearby, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
All of which makes the sudden and unexpected sound of a stranger coughing or sneezing in a grocery store aisle or passing by in the park potentially cringe-worthy.
So what do you do?
Here’s one doctor’s idea.
More than a decade ago, Dr. Fredrick Sherman wrote a piece headlined Learning to EXHALE, offering a simple three-step technique aimed at helping prevent the spread of flu “as well as other viral respiratory illnesses.”
Sherman, a professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, recently applied his technique to the coronavirus state of affairs.
It works like this: Exhale, look away, walk away.
Sherman suggests that upon hearing or seeing a nearby cough or sneeze, you should immediately start to exhale with lips pursed — and not inhale — to prevent taking in droplets.
While exhaling, look away from the sneezer, “thus presenting the back of one’s head rather than one’s nose, mouth and eyes to the droplets,” he wrote.
And while continuing to exhale, move away from the person. All of which should be done in quick sequence, the idea being to try to reduce the amount of virus exposure.
Sherman said this week his technique hasn’t been tested, but should be.
Experts agree it also helps if masks are being worn in public settings, particularly by the sneezer — or cougher or close-talker, as the case may be.
“If they’re wearing a mask, that should prevent some of the droplets, depending on the mask and how snugly it’s fit,” said Dr. Amanda Castel, professor in the the department of epidemiology at George Washington University.
Dr. Michael Teng, virologist and associate professor in the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, says infection “is all about time and space.” When somebody sneezes, generally, “the less time you spend in that cloud of respiratory droplets, the better off you are,” he said.
Castel said that when she walks her dog in the morning, she practices social distancing. “I make sure that I’m at least 6 feet away, and if somebody is not wearing a mask, I might be a little farther away,” she said.
And when it comes to sneezing, maybe this could this be a new reason to say bless-you in the current crisis: “If you’re going to cough or sneeze, do it in a tissue or do it in your elbow,” Castel advised.