Ross Murray's Border Report
Ross Murray
Ross Murray
is a freelance writer living in Stanstead, Quebec. You can reach him at
Posted 12.15.05
Stanstead, Quebec


On preventing colds by sneezing into the inside of your elbow

It's somewhat unnerving when something you've been doing all your life turns out to be incorrect, obsolete, or at very least pooh-poohed. I remember feeling this way when I learned that throwing spaghetti against the wall was not an effective test for doneness.

I'm sure the physics world reacted likewise when the Michelson-Morley Experiment failed to detect luminiferous ether. In fact, I think most physicists still take April 17 off in remembrance of that dark day.

We now learn that covering your mouth with your hand when you cough is no longer the preferred technique for preventing the spread of germs. The rationale is that if you cough into your hand, your hand gets all germy-like. Then you go and touch a doorknob or shake someone's hand or do some origami and you transfer the germs to said object.

It's kind of like the pink spot in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back that transfers from object to object and grows and grows, a sort of Dr. Seuss flu - which, I have to say, would be a cool name for a flu.

The standard practice now is to cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm.

Now, I'm no doctor but I don't see how you can get an effective clamp over your germ-laden pie-hole with an arm, especially if you have string-bean arms like me. And once you've reached a certain age, just try getting your whole arm up to your mouth.

As well, the arm-over-the face motion is one many of us reserve for reacting to really bad smells, which could lead to some awkward misunderstandings.

But this is what they're teaching the kids these days. So we can soon expect them to be self-righteously admonishing us grownups to put our arms over our mouths, the same way they say, "Daddy, wear your seatbelt" or "Daddy, don't smoke or you'll die" or "Daddy, stop driving onto the sidewalk with that bottle of bourbon in your lap."

It's important to get the protocol down because we're at the start of the annual cold and flu season and you don't want to be pegged as spreader of viruses. (Or is it bacteria? I can never remember which is which. I think the scientific difference is that a virus has a sad face with a thermometer sticking out of its mouth and a bacterium has sharp pointy teeth and frowning eyebrows.)

Covering your mouth may help stop the spread of infection, but who wants to get it in the first place? That's why health officials recommend a flu shot, which to me seems about as dodgy a proposition as the arm-over-mouth recommendation.

Case in point: in order to get a flu shot, I have to go to my local CLSC in Quebec, which stands for "Central Location for Sickly Coughers."

It's not the workers' fault. They do all they can to contain infection by asking people to disinfect their hands and put on masks if they're not feeling well. Most people comply, but have you ever tried keeping a surgical mask on a hacking runny-nosed 3-year-old? It can't be done.

They cough and sniff and run around the waiting room and then they pass you the ratty Barney doll they just sneezed on. In fact, sick kids seem to target the healthy people in the room- "Me sit on your lap!" - the same way cats seem to target cat-haters.

So chances are if you go to the CLSC, you'll walk into a wall of germs even before you get the flu shot, rendering the inoculation moot.

Remember, though: I'm no medical authority. For all I know, I may be spreading another myth about the flu. So if you really want the truth, you should do some research. There are many websites, such as www.columnists_who_rationalize_not_getting_a_flu_shot_because_they'