When Sneezing Etiquette and
Mask Etiquette Merge

Sneezing Into a Mask

Sneezing etiquette is not new to us and, in fact, has its roots in the various superstitious beliefs about what happens when someone sneezes, which include a favorable omen to a sign of demon possession.  To ward off any negative effects, the typical response to a sneeze became “Bless you!” or something similar depending on your language or culture.  

Though medically we know that sneezing is a biological response to an irritated nose, many of us during the pandemic have re-learned how important it is to protect ourselves and others from possible “dangerous emissions.”  A single sneeze releases approximately 40,000 respiratory droplets, which can linger in the air and on surfaces.

Mask-wearing has brought about a level of comfort regarding those dangerous emissions. 

How Does Mask-wearing and Sneezing Etiquette Mix?

Mask-wearing comes with its own set of social norms of time, place, and circumstance and with virus variants continuing to threaten our health and well-being, it seems they may be a part of daily life for a while.  

These considerations prompted one reader to ask, “If you are wearing a mask and need to sneeze, should you be sneezing into your mask or is it okay to take it off and sneeze into the elbow area?”  She noted that sneezing inside a mask feels very yucky and you can feel the sneeze come out over the top of the mask.  It would also feel yucky to sneeze into her elbow when wearing sleeveless blouses during warm seasons.  

The search for healthy and recognizably polite habits continues!  Having to sneeze while wearing a mask is uncomfortable, but there are workarounds to keep sneezing etiquette intact.  

  • Sneezing is rarely controllable, and many times a sneeze can literally blow the mask off a person's face.  Proper etiquette involves a verbal apology/comment.  (Sometimes blowing your nose or lightly pinching your nose through your can prevent it from being too explosive.) 
  • When wearing a long-sleeved shirt, sneeze into the elbow area, with or without a mask. 
  • When un-masked and wearing a short-sleeved shirt or sleeveless top, place your nose into the elbow area of your arm and sneeze downward towards the ground.  It appears that you are sneezing into your elbow, and appropriate consideration is signaled to others.
  • Some people prefer considerately sneezing into an armpit area with or without a mask.
  • If you feel a sneeze coming on, excuse yourself quickly and walk into an area away from other people, the best being outside.  (In a virtual meeting, mute yourself and, if you have time to do so, turn off your video to handle a sneeze issue.) 
  • Have an extra mask with you. Disposables are easy to carry, but emerging mask/sneezing etiquette rules imply that there is an "expected response," as opposed to merely slapping another mask on.  A small zip-lock bag for discarded masks, until disposed of, properly lets others see you care. 

Remaining Mindfully Etiquette-ful

We share our world with the other people in it.  Etiquette guidelines help us to do this in a relatively painless manner.  Sneezing etiquette is no different, because when it comes to spreading germs and viruses, it’s not just about us.  It’s about everyone in our vicinity. 

As we learn what to do when sneezing, it may also be helpful to remember the “never-dos.”

  • Never sneeze into your hands, masked or not.  If it happens, excuse yourself and wash your hands immediately.
  • Never correct others for sneezing or not wearing masks.
  • Never touch the front of your mask when removing it, use the ear handles instead.  
  • Never leave used tissues and masks laying around.  

A most etiquette-ful question any person can ask is, “What can I choose to do to help everyone here feel safe and protected?”  And remember, if you are sick, please stay at home!

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