March 30 2009

Social Etiquette While You’re Sick

Japanese face maskI think the Japanese have an awfully good idea when it comes to social etiquette while you’re sick.

If you’ve ever been to Japan, or even watched something on TV that shows every day life there, you are sure to have seen at least a few people wearing surgical style masks.  They wear them for multiple reasons, but the main one being it means they are sick with something and they are trying not to give it to the people around them.  As someone who gets sick fairly easily, I have always loved this idea, but somehow I don’t ever see it getting taken up here in the United States unfortunately.

I am currently suffering from a case of bronchitis, and after the doctor’s office this morning i had a couple of unavoidable errands I had to run.  I gave serious thought to wearing a mask because apparently the type I have is viral, but seeing as one of my stops I needed to make was a bank (although every teller there knows my name), I didn’t think walking into a bank with a mask on might be the smartest of ideas.

So, barring a sudden shift in American thought process where we all start wearing masks, there are some common courtesies I see people break all the time that would be so easy to remember if they just thought about it.

Things To Do To Prevent Getting The Lastest Bug/Not Spreading It Around

Turn your head and cover your mouth when you cough

As someone who worked in a retail store for years, I couldn’t believe the number of times people coughed in my face.  Is it really that difficult to turn your head, or at least cover your mouth?

One hand for coughing,  one hand for everything else

As I’m right handed, I always make sure to cough into my left hand as I use my right hand to open doors, handle items in stores and so on.  Sure I’m still infected, but at least I’m attempting to reduce exposure.

Cover your hands when you push a cart

This is easiest in the winter, but since that is when most people get sick, it works.  If I’m wearing gloves, I leave them on as I shop so I’m not handling the cart with my bare hands.  If I’m grabbing packaged foods in the grocery store I don’t worry too much about the gloves, but if I’m picking something like fruit, I take off the gloves and reach for the highest items in the bin as 1) I’m tall enough to reach them and 2) that means they haven’t fallen down the bin yet reducing the risk of exposure to infected hands.  A lot of stores or also now offering sanitizing wipes to wipe down the cart before you use it, since they’re free, do it.

Wash your hands, Wash your hands, Wash your hands

Do you have any clue how much you could reduce the spread of colds and flu if you just washed your hands more often?  I wash my hands numerous times through out a day, and I carry hand sanitizer in my car so I can wash my hands off quickly after leaving a store.  Hand sanitizer does have a draw back in that it can kill off good bacteria also, so do use it sparingly.

Don’t scratch your eyes or rub your nose

The quickest way for any virus to enter your body is through your tear ducts or nasal passages.  Unless you’ve washed your hands (see above), then keep your hands well away from your face.


Sleep is one of the best ways to prevent yourself from getting sick, and Americans especially need ot learn this rule.  I am definitely one that lacks in sleep, so I’m certainly not guilt free in my health.

Things To Do If You Catch Something

Chicken Soup

Sure it seems like something your mother just said to you as a child, but it’s true.  Good old chicken soup will always soothe the soul and help your immune system.

Spicy Foods

I stumbled across this trick when I was in Japan in 2001 and came down with bronchitis just as I arrived.  (Yes, I get bronchitis very easily)  I stepped across the street to a MOS Burger as it was an easy walk, and I was unaware my burger came with a mayonnaise laced with chili powder.  I ate the burger, I could tell there was some sort of chili powder in it, I walked out of the establishment, and within seconds… evacuated one of the largest coughs I’ve ever had from bronchitis.  (I’m trying to be tactful)  The next day the same sequence of events happened, and I was sold on having mildly spicy food any time I was sick after that.  And it works!

Follow The Other Rules

If you have to go out, think of the people around you.  Somehow I doubt any of them want to be sick, just like you didn’t want to be.

Why You Should Follow Any Of This

I realize this list makes me sound a bit of a hypochondriac, but I’m really not. These steps are all simple and become like second nature to you once you start doing them.  Sure the mask would still be one of the simplest solutions, but since I don’t see that happening any time soon, you can at least take some small steps to help those around you, as well as yourself.

What are your tips for staying healthy?

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  • between L and N.

    like your post. you should add these gems:
    1) change your sheets every few days, rather than once a week, when you're sick
    2) make sure you wash your comforter or any other blanket you sleep with or have in your living room
    3) take vitamins every day but stock up on concentrated vitamins for sick times.
    4) get fresh air. even if it means just opening the windows in your house/apt. for a little bit.

  • Sean P. Aune

    hmm whomever could be the mysterious "between L and N"… lol

    Also all good suggestions.

  • Ah, I wish Japan were like that more. Yes, some people wear the mask to keep others from being infected–but not too many. About the same number wear the masks to protect themselves from other people's germs, and a larger number wear the masks because of allergies.

    As for sick people in Japan, depressingly few are so polite about spreading germs. I cannot tell you how many students come up to me when I am at my desk, and literally standing right over me, no mask or anything, report that they are very ill. Distance, please? One class I taught required me to stick to a whiteboard–immediately next to which was a student, clearly ill, who constantly sneezed an coughed without covering his mouth. And let's not get into riding public trains, where you usually have to stand up and grasp surfaces that hundreds of others have had their hands on that morning, and the people with colds, mostly without masks, are crowded and shoved right into you.

    One thing that helps me a great deal: alcohol-based hand wash. I hate the gel stuff–I have no idea why it's predominant, it's icky and leaves residue–but I found and bought a large cache of water-based wash, and it's fantastic. Seriously, I got a lot fewer colds after I started using it regularly.

    Another good technique: use your sleeve to satisfy an itch on your face. Your sleeve is a lot less likely than your hands to carry an infection, and let's face it–most of the time, not touching your face is very hard to do.

    • Sean P. Aune

      Yes, I realize the masks aren't universal, but sure is a step further than we have over here.

      As for the trains, when I'm over there I tend to grab the luggage rack support as it is too high up for most Japanese, or I grab the hand rings supports that attach to the ceilings. One definite advantage to being tall gaijin :P

      I have only ever seen the gel based hand washes, who makes the water based ones?

      Oh! Good suggestion on the sleeve!

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