Be wary of the next person you shake hands with - nearly 40 per cent of adults New Zealanders have admitted to using their fingers to wipe their nose.
A Colmar Brunton survey of 1018 adult Kiwis found that two thirds admitted to not protecting their sneezes and nearly 40 per cent to using their clothing, fingers or wrist to clear their mucus.
To make matters worse, 11 per cent said they don't wash their hands after sneezing into them and men aged 18 to 39 were the worst offenders - trumping national averages by up to 27 per cent.
Females aged over 50 were the most hygienic demographic, while professionals and government officials were the worst performing occupation with nearly half admitting to finger, wrist and clothing wiping.
The survey, commissioned by Kleenex, showed hygiene habits have worsened in the last five years. In 2008, the same survey revealed just half of adults didn't cover their sneezes and only 34 per cent admitted to wiping their nose with clothing, fingers or wrists.
The results were so bad, in-school education programme Kleenex Sneezesafe changed the focus from education children to teaching children how to educate adults.
Dr Sue Huang, flu expert at Environment Science and Research, said the results showed New Zealanders were putting their families and those close to them at risk.
"We talk a lot about how respiratory hygiene is important, but how well it sinks into people's head is a different story. This really shows we have quite a big percentage of people who are actually not following very good hygiene and that could probably have quite a fair impact on their immediate family and people who they have close contact with."
Dr Huang, who is the World Health Organisations representative for New Zealand, said it was especially important to cover up coming into flu season.
"Flu season is just around the corner and aerosol type of transmission - sneezing and coughing droplets containing lots of flu particles - eventually causes further illness in the community."
Touching contaminated surfaces and catching airborne particles were the most common ways of transmission, she said.
"Washing hands is absolutely crucial, the other way is covering yourself if you're coughing and sneezing. This message will have to be repeated and repeated many times to remind people."
Virologist Dr Lance Jennings said there were approximately 100 viruses circulating and vaccines did not protect against them all.
"Hospitalisations, especially for children and the elderly, are too high in New Zealand. We have multi-layered public health strategies in place each year - from education to vaccination - to help limit the spread of influenza in communities, but we need the whole of New Zealand to practise good respiratory hygiene before we can hope to effect real change."
Download an education kit at sneezesafe.co.nz
NEW ZEALAND SNEEZE SURVEY
• 63% of adults admit to sometimes sneezing into the air for others to breathe
• 37% of adults use their clothing, fingers or wrist to wipe a runny nose
• 11% of adults who sometimes sneeze into their hands, never wash them afterwards
• Men aged 18 to 39 were the worst offenders - 77% in their 30s admitted to not covering their sneezes; 19% of 18- to 29-years-olds to not washing their hands after sneezing into them; and 64% of 18- to 29-year-old to using clothing, fingers or wrists to wipe their nose.
•At 48%, professionals and government officials were the most prolific occupation for finger, wrist and clothing wiping