How to Steer Clear of Cold and Flu Germs This Season
With friends, family, and coworkers getting sick during the cold and flu season, staying germ-free may seem impossible. Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself against the cold and flu viruses – without being anti-social.
Start with knowing the enemy. "Viruses are prevalent, with up to 30 different viral strains annually," says Stacey L. Silvers, MD, a board-certified otolaryngologist at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Rhinovirus is the most common, accounting for 30 to 50 percent of common colds — with up to 99 different strains. Influenza viruses, the viruses responsible for the flu, cause 5 to 10 percent of viral infections, Dr. Silvers explains.
Cold and flu viruses are passed from person to person through droplets of germ-filled mucous in two ways — direct contact and inhalation.
"If someone who has a cold sneezes or contaminates their hands and then touches surfaces, those germs remain viable anywhere from a few seconds to 48 hours," says Linda Dahl, MD, a board-certified ear, nose, and throat specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "If someone else comes along and touches that surface and then their eyes or nose, they can get sick. Transmission can also occur by inhaling germ-filled air after a contagious person coughs or sneezes, or by sharing their food utensils or cups."
Flu and Cold Virus Hiding Places
During cold and flu season, the cold virus can linger everywhere. At the office, just about any object, from a telephone to a doorknob, can be tainted by sick colleagues who are coughing or sneezing. This includes keyboards, desktops, used and unwashed mugs, tables and countertops in common eating areas like cafeterias and lounges, and many surfaces in the bathroom.
Just getting from your home to the office and back can present a minefield of germs — buttons on elevators, poles, handrails, and door handles on trains and subways. Being in carpools and other enclosed spaces with people that are sneezing or coughing can also spread colds.
Social functions are another prime locale for easily spreading germs. Shaking hands, hugging, and kissing all bring people close together, along with the possibility of sharing cold and flu viruses with the greetings. Accidentally sipping from someone else's drinking glass is another hygiene blunder to watch out for.
Finally, beware of the gym. Pat yourself on the back for staying in shape, but take precautions to avoid being exposed to all kinds of cold and flu viruses on the different pieces of exercise equipment and in the locker room, sauna, and pool.
Ways to Prevent Colds and Flu
Fortunately, you can take some universal precautions in most every situation. First and foremost, practice good hygiene. "Wash your hands; use hand sanitizer if you have it; and make sure that your hands are clean prior to eating and drinking. Also try to avoid putting your fingers in your mouth or rubbing your eyes," says Ronan M. Factora, MD, an assistant professor at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University.
Try these other simple tips to steer clear of germs as possible:
- Keep your distance from those who are sick.If someone is clearly ill, try to stay away from any coughing and sneezing as much as possible. Avoid large crowds in general to reduce your exposure to germs.
- Be vigilant at the gym.Spray and wipe down each piece of equipment with your sanitizer before and after using it. Try to go at less crowded times. And again, wash your hands before touching your face or mouth.
- Get a flu shot."I cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting vaccinated against influenza every year," says Dr. Factora. This protects you as well as those you come in contact with, especially more at-risk people like babies, the elderly, and anyone with a compromised immune system.
Finally, remember the golden rule. We'd all rather our sick friends and coworkers stayed home instead of infecting everyone around them, and this goes for you, too, when you're sick. "Stay home, rest, and get better before you go back to work and expose others to your illness," says Dr. Dahl.
And if you absolutely can't stay home? At least take a decongestant to lessen the amount of mucous you're producing, cough and sneeze into your elbow, use tissues, and wash your hands — a lot. You'll feel better faster and minimize the risk of getting others sick, too.
Video: Want to steer clear of the flu? There's an app for that
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