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But how far, exactly, can droplets travel when you cough or sneeze? And more importantly, how should that distance affect your home hygiene routine if you or someone in your home might be sick? Here’s everything you need to know about keeping your space sanitary when somebody’s generously sharing their droplets.
How far do germs travel when you sneeze or cough?
Dr. Elizabeth Scott, professor of microbiology at Simmons Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community at Simmons University in Boston, says as a general rule, droplets can travel between three and six feet from someone’s nose or mouth onto a surface or another person. (That’s why the Centers for Disease Control currently recommends maintaining six feet of personal space to curb the community spread of COVID-19.)
One easy way to help keep germs from traveling (and, ultimately, infecting someone else) is to use a tissue when you sneeze or cough, then disposing of it immediately after and washing your hands. Just make sure to have enough tissues on hand, as germs can stay viable on soft surfaces. (The International Forum on Home Hygiene recommends avoiding the use of handkerchiefs when you’re sick, because you’re less likely to spread droplets if you throw away a tissue after using it once.) When you use a tissue, always throw it away immediately in a trash bin with a disposable liner or bag instead of leaving it on another surface.
Do you have to disinfect after you cough or sneeze?
You can’t always predict when a cough or sneeze is coming on (and the most sudden sneezes seem to attack suspiciously when you have your hands full). And you definitely can’t control roommates who won’t take their health seriously. If someone in your household is sick or may be sick and you want to avoid accidentally infecting the other people who live there, you need to be extra vigilant about disinfecting surfaces after someone sneezes or coughs into the open air.
If you’re sitting on the couch and then disperse droplets, consider the surfaces within a six-foot radius and disinfect accordingly. Did you sneeze in the general direction of your coffee table and side table, or on your couch pillow and throw? Then disinfect those hard surfaces and toss the soft ones in the laundry. If you’re in the kitchen doing dishes and don’t cover your mouth or nose when you sneeze or cough, that might mean you disinfect your knife block, faucet, and counters before someone else can touch them—and, of course, your hands and the dishes.
How should I clean things I sneezed or coughed on?
Keep in mind that cleaning and disinfecting are totally different things. Just because you wiped a surface down and removed all visible signs of your sneeze doesn’t mean you’ve nipped the problem in the bud. To make sure you’re actually killing and removing droplet-spread germs, you have to use disinfecting or sanitizing methods.