This Is Exactly How to Handle 14 Awkward Flu Season Situations

Updated: Mar. 17, 2022

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

Group of friends having drinks at the night club party.
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Socializing means sharing—germs and all

The holidays bring people together. And, thanks to all those family get-togethers, office buffets, and parties, they can also bring the germs too. It’s not a coincidence that cold and flu season coincides with the holidays! Germs aren’t an excuse to drop your manners however. So we asked etiquette experts to share their tips for navigating these sticky (slimy?) holiday situations:

woman greeting family at the door

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

Family get togethers are often germ fests but that doesn’t mean you can’t still practice good manners. 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. Another tip is to give out hand sanitizer as stocking stuffers, adds Rachel Isgar, PhD, etiquette coach and owner of Please Pass the Manners, a Los Angeles-based etiquette school. Lastly, swap out cloth bathroom hand towels and dinner napkins for decorative paper hand towels. Consider serving one of these foods that may help keep the flu away.

woman sneezing at her desk
iStock/Willie B. Thomas

How can I stop a coworker from spreading germs?

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, according to a survey done by NSF. But what can you do? Say your coworker won’t stop clearing her throat: You sympathize, but you’re also considering earplugs. Tell her privately as she might not realize she’s doing it, or offer to help in a gentle way, says Napier-Fitzpatrick. “Say something like, ‘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?’,” she suggests. Here are 7 rules for calling in sick.

woman at the airport on the phone, blowing her nose into a tissue
iStock/Manuel Faba Ortega

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

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 far times more likely to catch a cold on a plane than in day-to-day life, according to a study in PNAS. If you’ve got a sniffly seatmate, grab a few extra tissues from the restroom and ask if it’s allergies or a cold, says Ellen Clayton, etiquette consultant at the Etiquette School of Chicago. If it’s the latter, she 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, she says. Here’s how the way we usually board planes can spread disease.

table with dips and drinks

What if everybody but me wants to share food?

Sick friends want to share—and you want to cringe. Offer utensils to use instead of their hands or ask your server to split a meal between two plates, says Napier-Fitzpatrick. “The real 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.

men shaking hands

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

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 appreciate your candor and that you’re thinking of their health, too, versus a handshake that could lead to illness.

sick woman in bed with tissue

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

Apologize profusely to the hosts, but do not go, Isgar says. “Tell them you don’t want to risk that they or any of their guests get sick,” she explains. “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, she adds.

woman cleaning a countertop with cloth and spray bottle

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

Well, no. First, kindly ask if you can get him or her anything, or subtly hand over a tissue, Isgar says. It’s also smart to avoid serving “family style” foods when bugs are going around, she adds. She also suggests serving chips and dip in individual cups to avoid double-dipping, distributing wine charms to track drinks, and spraying common areas with disinfectant. (Here are 10 things you need to clean after the flu.)

gray-haired man coughing

What if I can’t stop coughing?

Keep cough drops, mints, water, or a travel mug of hot tea with you, Isgar says. 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, she adds. (Here are 10 natural cough remedies to try.)

people at a table with one woman sneezing

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

Apologize and excuse yourself to wash up, then move on, Isgar says. “The more attention you draw to something, the bigger issue it becomes,” she explains. “If a lot of people see it, you can give a little chuckle. That’ll help exhaust the situation.” And remember, sneeze into your elbow instead of your hand to to prevent the spread of germs. Even if sneezing is embarrassing, you probably shouldn’t hold that sneeze in—here’s why.

people preparing food on a counter
iStock/Izabela Habur

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

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.

African American woman sneezing into a tissue
iStock/Leonardo Patrizi

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

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.

woman looking at tablet

Should I “like” Facebook pity-posts?

When a friend constantly complains about being sick on social media, be helpful and message them privately to see if they need anything, says Napier-Fitzpatrick. “If they have children, you might say, ‘Would you like me to pick up your children from school?’” she explains. If you’re the would-be complainer, she suggests you ask yourself first: Are you seeking advice, like a doctor recommendation, or just whining? Refrain if it’s the latter. (Here are some words and phrases people use on social media that are linked to depression.)

woman checking a man's temperature with a thermometer

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

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

mother checking a child's temperature

Do I confront a sick child’s parent?

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 makes 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.