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This is the One Surest Way to Catch Germs, Say Experts

What not to do in this new era of the coronavirus.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Health officials stress that the best way to stay healthy is good, old-fashioned common sense: Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently; avoid touching your mouth and nose; avoid people who are coughing and sneezing—all time-tested ways to avoid more minor illnesses like the common cold and flu.

They're simple rules that, if followed, would make the world a healthier place. Here are the most common virus-spreading mistakes to avoid, no matter what time of year it is or what's going on in the news. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Have "Long" COVID and May Not Even Know It.


Going Anywhere Sick

woman with cold, working on laptop computer, coughing and sneezing

If you are contagious, it's not appropriate to go to the office and "power through it"—even if you have a job that is deemed "essential." "For the love of humanity, do not come to work if you are sick or believe you may have the flu," states Michèle Oricoli, Certified Etiquette Consultant and founder of More Than Manners. "Sharing, in this case, is not caring."


Not Washing Your Hands

Woman Washing her hands with soap and water at home bathroom

Opting not to wash your hands might seem like a personal choice, but when you neglect to do so you are compromising the health of others by exposing them to potential germs. "Wash your hands when leaving the restroom and before or after preparing food," instructs Oricoli. You should also do it anytime you have left the house or touched anything with your bare hands. "Do it thoroughly and often." According to the CDC, you should scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. If you need a timer, she suggests humming the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end twice.


Shaking Hands or Hugging if You Aren't Feeling Well

two businessman handshaking process

You're not supposed to be seeing friends and family during this time, but if you must for something essential, avoid making physical contact with others. "Skip handshakes, hugs, and kisses," says Oricoli. Even better, stay six feet apart.


Not Covering Your Mouth When You Cough or Sneeze

Mature woman with sore throat, standing in living room at home.

Just don't use your hand! "If you're caught unprepared, direct your mouth and nose toward your upper sleeve or the inside of your elbow," Oricoli suggests. MIT scientists have confirmed that sneezes and coughs can travel farther than you ever cared to imagine—a "paint-like pattern of fluid fragmentation." Say it, don't spray it. The best thing to do is to sneeze into a tissue.


Blowing Your Nose in Public

Woman blowing her nose into tissue

Yes, everyone has to blow their nose at one time or another—no shame. But that doesn't make the process of removing snot from your nose and into a tissue any less gross. "If you need to blow your nose, excuse yourself and take care of business in the restroom," says Oricoli. "Dispose of all tissues and wash your hands." Also, if you do end up blowing your nose in front of others, she suggests refraining from examining the tissue for its contents.


Not Sanitizing Your Work Spaces

Woman Cleaning The Glass Office Desk With Rag

I know most of us are working from home, but for those of you with essential jobs, always sanitize your work area, especially in co-working spaces. "Wipe down the desk, phone, keyboard and door handles. It is a basic courtesy for the health of your coworkers and their loved ones," states Oricoli.


Using Communal Towels in Guest Bathrooms

rolled towels in wooden tray at clean bathroom

Paper, disposable guest towels aren't just an interior design style statement—they can protect your guests from spreading germs! You're likely now hosting anyone right now, but if the handyman must come over: "As a host, if possible, place disposable hand towels in your bathroom to avoid the damp, communal towel," says Oricoli.


Not Wiping Down Gym Equipment

Staff using wet wipe and disinfectant from the bottle spraying sit up bench in gym. Antiseptic,disinfection

Believe it or not, some gyms are still open. Every gym offers sanitary wipes for a reason. Even if you aren't sick, always wipe down every piece of gym equipment that you touch. If you don't, you are committing one of the biggest health etiquette offenses, according to Oricoli. "Remembering basic respect and adhering to The Golden Rule is key here," she points out.


Double Dipping

Dipping chip into bean dip

Whether you are sick or not, never ever pull a George Costanza and double dip your chip. "There's no reason to spread germs," points out Oricoli.


Touching Food and Putting it Back

Mom and little boy buy fresh vegetable in grocery store. Family in shop.

Germs, germs, and germs! Nobody wants to eat food that you have already touched with your dirty hands. Use the tongs.


Not Getting Enough Sleep

Woman Turning Off Alarm While Sleeping On Bed

Not getting enough sleep isn't just bad for your health, it can negatively impact others. "If you're not getting enough sleep during the night, that makes you drowsy when you interact with others during the day," points out Vishal Patel, MD, MBA, FAAP, FACP, clinical lead for ChristianaCare's Primary Care & Community Medicine and a senior clinical investigator with Christiana Care's Value Institute. There are other problems as well: Data suggest that inadequate sleep leads to an increased risk of depression, cancer, heart disease, obesity and memory loss. The goal is for adults to get at least 7 to 9 hours each night. "I reiterate to my patients that certain tasks can wait until the next day, and they'll be better able to socialize with others, by avoiding cramming everything for one day and compromising on their sleep."


Not Practicing Pool Hygiene

Female side view enjoying shower before swim

Here's a good one for when pools reopen: According to the CDC, pools can be hot zones for bacteria and infections. Sadly, many are avoidable. If you follow three simple guidelines, you can do your part in keeping disease out of pools. First, stay out of the water if you have diarrhea. Second, always shower before you get in the water. And third, don't pee or poop in the water.


Picking In or Around Your Nose in Public

health problem and people concept - indian man rubbing nose over grey background

According to one study, a whopping 95 percent of people cop to picking their nose. However, just because everyone is doing it doesn't mean anyone wants to see it done by someone else! Not only does it look gross, but picking your nose and then touching someone else can spread infection.


Not Washing Your Hands After Handling Meat

storing meat at home

According to the CDC, a large percentage of foodborne disease outbreaks are spread by contaminated hands. If you touch contaminated meat and then come into contact with someone else, you could expose them to a potentially life-threatening infection. Always wash your hands immediately after handling meat.


Visiting a Hospital When You are Sick

old woman and adult man sit on gray stainless chair waiting medical and health services to the hospital,patients waiting treatment

If you have the slightest notion that you might be coming down with something, stay far away from the hospital unless you are seeking treatment for yourself. So many people in a medical setting have compromised immune systems, and exposing them to anything contagious could have fatal repercussions.


Drinking Straight From a Carton or Bottle

Man drinking juice

It can be tempting to take a swig of milk straight from the carton, but keep in mind that if you do, you are exposing others to your germs. For example, if you're infected with the coronavirus, it could be in your backwash for days before you show symptoms, thus exposing everyone who drinks next.


Using the ATM or Credit Card Terminal Improperly

Woman at the supermarket checkout, she is paying using a credit card

Did you know that ATM and credit card terminals are ridden with germs, according to studies? Think about it. Chances are, not many people are bothering to disinfect their hands before and after a transaction. If you need to make any sort of monetary machine transaction, you should always disinfect your hands before and after use—or wear gloves.


Eating at Public Food Bars

variety food buffet

The sad truth about salad and hot food bars is, many people can't help themselves from violating health sins—including dipping fingers into dressing for a taste or eating from their place in the serving line. One study found that 60 percent of salad bar patrons committed at least one health safety hazard. If you are sick, avoid communal food areas like this altogether. But even if you aren't, make sure to follow the rules to totally ensure the health of others. 


Sharing Utensils

Young woman sharing her food with her husband or friend

It can be tempting to take a bite off someone else's fork, but it's important to keep in mind that it's not just food you are sharing with them. The CDC warns against sharing utensils with others when you are sick, as you are directly exposing them to your saliva. 

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Sleeping in Bed with Your Partner

Senior woman with insomnia trying to sleep

If you are sick, sleep in the guest room—especially if you have the novel coronavirus. "Choose a room in your home that can be used to separate sick household members from those who are healthy," urges the CDC. "Identify a separate bathroom for the sick person to use, if possible. Plan to clean these rooms, as needed, when someone is sick." 


Not Wearing a Facemask

If you are sick, always wear a facemask if you are around others. "Provide your sick household member with clean disposable face masks to wear at home, if available, to help prevent spreading COVID-19 to others," explains the CDC. 


Avoid Using Common Kitchen Towels

Woman in apron wiping her hands

Many of us have common hand towels in our kitchen, but the CDC warns against sharing a towel with someone who is sick. Instead, use a disposable paper towel and throw it directly into the trash after use. 


Not Cleaning Your Own "Sick Space"

Ill young blond woman having fever and blowing her nose while having a blanket on her shoulders and sitting on the couch with her eyes closed and table with pills in front of her

The CDC offers thorough instructions on cleaning when you are sick. "Clean high-touch surfaces in your isolation area ('sick room' and bathroom) every day," they suggest. However, "let a caregiver clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces in other areas of the home." If you allow them to clean up your sick space, you are compromising their health. 


Taking Public Transportation

man in glasses feeling sick, wearing protective mask against transmissible infectious diseases and as protection against the flu in public transport/subway, using and looking at smartphone

According to the CDC, "your risk of exposure to respiratory viruses like coronavirus may increase in crowded settings, particularly closed-in settings with little air circulation." This includes any sort of public transportation—such as buses, metros, or trains. "Avoid using public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis," they warn


Traveling via Airplane

Woman feeling unwell and wearing face mask on plane

Again, traveling in close quarters is not a good idea when you are sick. Lots of people, means lots of potential infectees. 

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Taking a Cruise 

If there's anything we have learned in the midst of this pandemic, is how quickly a virus can spread on a cruise ship. The CDC recommends that all people "defer travel on cruise ships, including river cruises, worldwide," they explain on their website. "That's because the risk of COVID-19 on cruise ships is high." Unless you are 100 percent sure you aren't sick, you should never set foot on a floating vessel. 


Playing with Your Pets

father and daughter spending time together with a dog on a bed

Because there is still a lot we don't know about the novel coronavirus, the CDC suggests limiting exposure to pets and other animals. "Although there have not been reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19, it is still recommended that people with the virus limit contact with animals until more information is known," they explain. If you are sick, have someone else in your home care for your pet, if possible. 


Going to Stores

Young woman shopping in grocery store for food while wearing mask and preventing spread of coronavirus virus germs by wearing face mask.

While the CDC recommends social distancing for everyone, if you are sick —even just slightly—with the coronavirus you should not be leaving your home! "People who are mildly ill with COVID-19 are able to recover at home," they instruct. "Do not leave, except to get medical care. Do not visit public areas."

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Visiting Older People or Those With Weakened Immune Systems


Even if you have zero symptoms, it is crucial to maintain social distancing from older people or those with compromised immune systems. Per the CDC, 8 out of 10 deaths reported in the U.S. have been in adults 65 years old and older. Those at high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19 include: 

  • Those aged 65 years and older or anyone who lives in a nursing home or long-term care facility. 
  • Other high-risk conditions could include anyone with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma, those with serious heart conditions, people who are immunocompromised including cancer treatment, or people of any age with severe obesity (body mass index [BMI] >40) or certain underlying medical conditions, such as those with diabetes, renal failure, or liver disease. 

Failing to Wait Until You Are Well to Resume Life as Normal

African American man in antiviral mask gesturing thumb up during coronavirus vaccination, approving of covid-19 immunization

Even if you feel better, there are certain things that need to happen before you can stop home isolation, per the CDC. "If you will not have a test to determine if you are still contagious, you can leave home after these three things have happened," they explain. The first, is if you have had no fever for at least 72 hours—three full days of no fever without the use of medicine that reduces fevers. Second, all your other symptoms—for example, cough and shortness of breath—have improved. And finally, at least 7 days have passed since your symptoms first appeared.


Not Cleaning Your Phone

Woman cleaning smartphone screen with alcohol

Sharon Chekijian, MD, an emergency medicine doctor with Yale Medicine, explains that it is crucial to maintain proper cell phone hygiene when you are sick. First, wipe your phone down. "Cell phones can by and large be wiped down several times a day with alcohol, Lysol or Clorox wipes," she explains. If wipes are running low you can spray a disinfectant product on a clean paper towel instead. "Be sure to remove the cover and screen saver on your phone and wipe them separately as well. Wipe all buttons and crevices on the phone. Let the phone and covers dry completely before using them again. Always check with the manufacturer to be sure the above products will not damage your phone as models specifications may differ." 

Next, avoid recontaminating your phone while disinfecting. "Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly first and use a clean paper towel to hold the edge of the phone while you wipe it down. This is known as a no-touch decontamination," she explains. Likewise, let the phone and cover dry on a clean paper towel and rewash your hands.

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Passing Your Phone Around

Two friends watching media content in a smart phone

If you are sick, always keep your phone to yourself, urges Dr. Chekijian. "Always avoid passing your phone to others to use," she explains. If you need to, use the speakerphone option or make sure to keep it in your hand when attempting to show them something on the screen. As for yourself: To get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Alek Korab
Alek Korab is a Co-Founder and Managing Editor of the ETNT Health channel on Eat This, Not That! Read more about Alek
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