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Prevent the flu: Cover your cough!

It's every mother's mantra: Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. That used to mean coughing into your hands, but not anymore.

The Minnesota Department of Health, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have been encouraging kids and adults to cough and sneeze into their elbows with their Cover Your Cough campaign.

With the start of the flu season, reminders about "covering your cough" are popping up. Even Elmo from Sesame Street teaches kids to cough and sneeze into their elbows to keep from spreading germs.

Cover Your Cough! It's the best advice anyone can give who wants to avoid the flu. The reasoning makes sense. The flu virus is passed from one person to the other through fluids from mouth and nose secretions. When we cough and sneeze, those droplets go into the air.

Influenza (flu) and other serious respiratory illnesses like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), whooping cough, and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) are spread by cough, sneezing or unclean hands. These illnesses spread easily in crowded places where people are in close contact.

Through the Cover Your Cough campaign, Public Health is encouraging everyone to follow simple rules to help stop the spread of germs that can make you and others sick.

• Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.

• Put your used tissue in the waste basket.

• If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve or elbow, not your hands.

• Wash your hands often with soap and warm water for 20 seconds.

• If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

Keep that stuff off your hands, so there's no chance you will spread flu germs to another surface.

Here's a familiar scenario: You cough out of habit into your hands. Your dirty hand touches a door knob or elevator button. Some unlucky person will touch that knob or button, and now he or she's got it. The nasty cycle of the flu virus spreads on.

Covering up is part of taking care of yourself and your family. It's part of being polite and part of being responsible. Coughing or sneezing into the crook of the elbow should be part of the routine of everyday life. It's kind of like saying please and thank you. It's that important.

The Minnesota Department of Health has created Cover Your Cough posters and brochures that can be used in schools, day cares, offices, churches, and public and community facilities. All of the materials are available for downloading on their website,