This Is Exactly How to Handle 14 Awkward Flu Season Situations

Top manners experts offer their tips on how to handle those excruciatingly uncomfortable (and germy) moments that pop up during cold and flu season.

My entire family is visiting for the holidays. Germ fest?

iStock/DGLimages Could be, especially since germs spread faster with relatives. People generally stand three feet apart from each other, but family members stand about a foot and a half apart, says Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, founder and president of the Etiquette School of New York. Share that fun fact while distributing disinfectant. (“Use hand sanitizer as stocking stuffers,” adds Rachel Isgar, owner of Please Pass the Manners, a Los Angeles-based etiquette school.) Also, swap out cloth bathroom hand towels and dinner napkins for decorative paper hand towels. Consider serving one of these foods that keep the flu away.

How can I stop a coworker from spreading germs?

iStock/Willie B. Thomas A recent survey of 1,003 American adults found that a quarter of Americans always go to work when they’re sick, yet 81 percent care if a coworker arrives sick and would speak out. Say your coworker won’t stop clearing her throat: You sympathize, but you’re also considering earplugs. Tell her privately; she might not realize she's doing it, says Napier-Fitzpatrick. Offer to help in a gentle way. ("You’ve cleared you throat an awful lot—I hope everything is OK. Normally I wouldn’t mind, but I’m just about to make an important phone call. Can I make you some tea first?") Watch out for these signs you might not be able to trust your coworker.

What if I'm flying next to a sick person?

iStock/Manuel Faba Ortega Consider using the airsickness bag as an anti-germ mask. Kidding! Thanks to close quarters and extremely low cabin humidity (which hinders your immune system), you’re 113 times more likely to catch a cold on a plane than in day-to-day life, according to a study in the Journal of Environmental Health Research. To be kind, grab a few tissues from the restroom for your seat mate, and ask if it’s allergies or a cold. If it’s the latter, Ellen Clayton, etiquette consultant at the Etiquette School of Chicago, suggests asking the flight attendant about switching seats if the flight isn't full. Also, use hand sanitizer frequently and avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes, which is a common way for cold germs to gain entry. Here's how the way we usually board planes can spread disease.

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What if everybody but me wants to share food?

iStock/JurgaR Sick friends want to share—and you want to cringe. “Offer utensils to use instead of their hands,” says Napier-Fitzpatrick, or ask your server to split a meal between two plates. “The challenge is the appetizer, like guacamole,” says Isgar. “If you can see someone’s double dipping, I’d either get two sets for the table, or if there are four to six of you, just ask the waiter if you can each get your own small dish.” Say, "I’m happy to share! But I’m being very careful about staying healthy this season. How about we split this dish on different plates?" Alternately, spoon a portion on your own plate before the dish spends too much time on the table.

I'm under the weather. Do I shake someone's hand?

iStock/solidcolours Is it more gracious to help someone stay healthy, or play it off and just shake hands? “It’s better not to offer your hand,” says Isgar. People will feel appreciate your candor and that you're thinking of their health, too, versus a handshake that could lead to illness. Here's what your handshake says about you.

What if I'm sick, and can't reschedule an event?

iStock/South_agency Apologize profusely to the hosts, but do not go. “Tell them you don’t want to risk that they or any of their guests get sick,” says Isgar. “People are very grateful when you do that.” When you call, offer alternative plans to make it up to them once you’re better, and put a date on the calendar so they know you mean it when you say you want to celebrate.

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My houseguest is sick. Can I spray her with disinfectant?

iStock/Jovanmandic First, kindly ask if you can get him or her anything, or subtly hand over a tissue. It's also smart to avoid serving "family style" foods when bugs are going around, says Isgar. At a party, serve chips and dip in individual cups, so everyone avoids double dipping. Distribute wine charms to track drinks. After everyone leaves, air out the rooms and spray common areas with disinfectant. Make sure you're not making these house cleaning mistakes that actually spread germs.

What if I can't stop coughing?

iStock/Yuri_Arcurs Keep cough drops, mints, water, or a travel mug of hot tea with you. If you still can’t control the situation, quietly step out of the room until you can soothe your cough. Just say, Excuse me. Articulating much more will make your coughing fit worse.

I sneezed in a crowd—a big mix of mucus and embarrassment. Now what?

iStock/Yuri_Arcurs Apologize and excuse yourself to wash up, then move on. “The more attention you draw to something, the bigger issue it becomes," says Isgar. "If a lot of people see it, you can give a little chuckle. That’ll help exhaust the situation.” Today, etiquette rules require sneezing into your elbow instead of your hand, but it’s common to slip up. In a New Zealand study where researchers secretly observed passersby in public spaces, only one in 77 people used their elbows, and only one in 30 used a tissue. Even if sneezing is embarrassing, you probably shouldn't hold that sneeze in—here's why.

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I'm sick, but in charge of cooking for an event. What do I do?

iStock/Izabela Habur You don’t want anyone to think you’re trying to get out of the dirty work. Try this: Provide the food, but don’t make it yourself. “Once I was hosting a bridal shower for a friend, and I got bronchitis,” says Isgar. “I offered my house, called in a catering order, and said, ‘You guys can still have the event here, but I’m going to stay in my room.’” If you’re the guest and notice your cook is sick, don’t feel obligated to eat. “I’d push things around on my plate and just say I wasn’t very hungry,” says Clayton.

What if someone doesn't realize his nose is running?

iStock/Leonardo Patrizi Scene: There's an uncomfortable river of mucus dripping out of the other person's nose. But you don’t know him or her well enough to offer a tissue—or laugh. “Give them a hand gesture without saying anything," says Isgar. "If you just sort of point to your nose, then they’ll take the cue get a tissue.” You'll want to steal these tips from people who never get sick.

Should I "like" Facebook pity-posts?

iStock/Marco_Piunti When a friend constantly complains about being sick on social media, be helpful, but don’t bend over backward. Message them privately to see if they need anything. “If they have children, you might say, ‘Would you like me to pick up your children from school?’” says Napier-Fitzpatrick. If you’re the would-be complainer, ask yourself first: Are you seeking advice, like a doctor recommendation, or just whining? (Refrain if it’s the latter). Here are 7 things you should definitely NOT post on Facebook.

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What if my S.O. is sick, and wants to cuddle?

iStock/OJO_Images Show your support in other ways, like making a favorite meal or picking up medicine from the drugstore. “It’s totally OK to be honest and say that you don’t want to get too close and catch their bug,” says Isgar. Ask what you can do to help, saying (truthfully) that you’ll be a better caretaker if you’re healthy yourself.

Do I confront a sick child's parent?

iStock/Ridofranz You drop your child or grandchild off at school and notice their runny-nosed best friend is a walking virus. Suddenly, the monkey bars and the classroom’s “Sharing is Caring” poster make you anxious. However, etiquette says stay out of it. “There’s not a whole lot you can do about it," says Clayton. "Parents get pretty bent out of shape when people criticize their children.” Remember, children will always go to school sick. To deal, pack hand sanitizer in your child’s backpack. Here's how keeping your kids too clean could actually backfire.
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