Now that we’re heading into the season when colds, flu, stomach bugs, and other infections can run rampant, it’s an ideal time to review strategies that can help us stay healthy this winter.
Picking up the germs that cause these infections is as easy as touching a contaminated person or surface and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. That’s something we do an average of 15.7 times an hour, according to a study at University of California, Berkeley.
Frequent hand-washing is the leading expert-recommended infection-prevention strategy. But a few additional steps can also help you stay healthy this winter. Here, a quick rundown of the other strategies everyone should adopt and how to keep your germs to yourself if you do get sick:
1. Use the Right Soap
You can skip the antibacterial stuff—which has ingredients such as triclosan, which was recently banned by the Food and Drug Administration. The agency declared that there’s no evidence antibacterial soap eradicates bacteria any better than regular soap, and it may contribute to the rise in antibiotic-resistant superbugs as well as disruptions in hormonal regulation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends scrubbing with basic soap and water for a full 20 seconds to reduce the number of bacteria or viruses you may have picked up on your hands.
What will you do to stay healthy this winter?
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2. Avoid the Handshake
It’s becoming more common—and less socially awkward—to skip hand-to-hand contact (and the subsequent germ exchange) during cold and flu season.
“Fist bumps and elbow bumps are replacing the handshake in many settings,” says William Schaffner, M.D., professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. “Among my infectious-disease colleagues I see a version of the South Asian ‘Namaste,’ where we put our hands together at our chests, make eye contact, and give a little bow.”
3. Cover Coughs and Sneezes Properly
If you’re the one who’s spewing germs, one way to keep them to yourself is to sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow. “When you cough or sneeze, that air comes out with a good degree of force, spreading virus particles to anyone within a 3- to 6-foot range,” says Lisa Grohskopf, M.D., a medical officer in the Influenza Division at the CDC.
Sneezing or coughing into your hand will help keep the germs from going airborne, but if you don’t wash your hands immediately, you’ll spread the germs the minute you touch anything or anyone.
4. Keep Your Distance
Respiratory viruses, like colds and flu, can spread easily through the air. “When someone who’s sick exhales, they breathe out microscopic droplets of fluid containing the virus,” Schaffner says. “And anyone else within their ‘breathing zone’ can then breathe in that infected air.”
To stay healthy this winter, put about 6 feet between you and any sick person who is likely to breathe, cough, or sneeze in your direction.
5. Know That Germs Can Linger
Another reason to wash your hands frequently is that surfaces stay germy for longer than you might think. A study from the University of Buffalo found that stuffed toys, books, and cribs at a day care tested positive for bacteria that cause ear infections and strep throat even after the facility had been closed overnight.
And according to the CDC, flu viruses can live on hard surfaces (such as doorknobs or phones) for 2 to 8 hours.
A 2013 article published in the American Journal of Infection Control noted that the bug that causes norovirus—an extremely contagious viral infection that brings diarrhea and vomiting—can survive for up to seven days on a hard, dry surface. It also found that the bacteria that cause MRSA—a type of staph infection— have been found to survive for months. Even cold germs can live for anywhere from two hours to seven days on hard surfaces, and for about two hours on skin.
6. Clean Often-Touched Surfaces
Because those bacteria and viruses stick around on surfaces for hours or even days, cleaning is key. “I recommend an approach called ‘targeted hygiene,’” says Elizabeth Scott, Ph.D., co-director of the Simmons Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community at Simmons College in Boston, and co-author of the 2013 study. “This means targeting cleaning and disinfection practices when and where there is a risk of infection transmission.”
Say, for example, that a coworker or family has a respiratory infection. At the office, it would be wise to regularly (at least daily) wipe down shared workspaces and equipment, such as copy machines that everyone in the office touches. At home, focus on hard surfaces—like doorknobs, faucets, and TV remotes—on which bacteria live the longest.
Just as with hand-washing, you can skip the antibacterial cleaning products. Experts say any household cleaner—or a diluted bleach solution—will do the trick.
7. Get Vaccinated
Although there’s no guaranteed protection against influenza, the annual flu vaccine is still your best defense. Experts can’t predict the effectiveness of this year’s vaccine, but for 2016, getting the shot resulted in a 42 percent lower risk of coming down with the flu.
“And if you do get sick, you may have milder symptoms,” Grohskopf says. It takes two weeks after the shot for your immune system to build up the necessary, protective antibodies, so going for you vaccine in the fall—before flu activity ramps up—is ideal.
8. Know When to Stay Home
“At the height of your symptoms, you need to stay home for one or two days in order to not get other people sick,” says Aaron E. Glatt, M.D., chairman of the department of medicine at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, N.Y.
And while you’re home recovering, take precautions to help the rest of the household stay healthy this winter. Don’t take charge of the family’s food prep while you’re sick, and try to hole up in one room as much as possible in order to keep your germs to yourself.