Tips for Preventing Colds and the Flu

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You can reduce your risk of catching common viral infections like colds or influenza (the flu) with some simple steps and good habits, from washing your hands to getting the annual flu vaccine. Working to prevent the spread of these highly-contagious illnesses not only means fewer people will get sick, but that people who are at high risk for complications have a better chance of avoiding them.

The best steps you can take to stay healthy and prevent colds and the flu are things you have likely heard over and over again (and deservedly so):

Wash Your Hands

Perhaps most importantly, washing your hands correctly and frequently is the best way to prevent the spread of germs. You will keep yourself healthier by doing so, and you will also reduce the chances that you pass your germs on to others.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers these steps:

  1. Wet your hands and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands completely and scrub for at least 20 seconds.
  3. Rinse your hands under clean, running water, and dry them with a clean towel (or air dry).

Be sure to wash your hands before and after preparing food and treating a cut or wound. Wash before eating, and after using the toilet, changing diapers, blowing your nose, touching animals, or touching garbage.

Use Hand Sanitizer

Soap and water aren't always readily available. If you don't have a way to wash your hands, be sure to use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol to clean your hands thoroughly. This is especially important before you touch your face, eat, or touch someone else.

To use it correctly, apply it to the palm of one hand. Then rub your hands together, getting the gel over all surfaces until your hands are dry. This takes about 20 seconds.

Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle

Keeping your body healthy helps keep your immune system healthy. That means you are better able to fight off illnesses when you come into contact with germs.

Doing things like eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep, and reducing stress will help ensure that your body is better able to fight off infections.

Importantly, if you smoke even occasionally, stop. Smoking affects your immune system, making you more likely to get sick with common illnesses, like cold and flu. Smoking affects nearly every part of the body in many ways.

Stay Hydrated

Drinking enough water each day keeps your body functioning as it should. While eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day is a popular rule of thumb, there isn't a standard recommendation on how much to drink. It will vary by climate, exertion, and other factors.

For most people, you will get about the right amount by drinking whenever you are thirsty. Another indicator is that your urine should be light yellow to clear during the day. If you have dark yellow urine (or rarely need to urinate), you are likely not drinking enough.

Avoiding Sharing Food and Drink

Even if the person you are sharing a cup, utensil, or food with isn't visibly sick, they could pass germs on to you that will make you sick. Your friend could be immune to a virus that he has in his body but it could easily make you sick because you haven't had it before.

Keep Your Distance

If you know someone is sick, it's best to give them space. That said, avoiding the flu can be difficult because it is contagious a full 24 hours before symptoms even appear. Someone who was at work yesterday but stayed home with the flu today was actually spreading the germs around the office before they knew they were sick.

Clean Surfaces

Making sure you clean frequently touched surfaces in your workspace and office can help cut down on the spread of germs. People rarely think about how many germs could be on their computer keyboard, office telephone, or cell phone, though these are amongst the items they (and perhaps others) touch most throughout the day.

The same goes for surfaces in your home. Cleaning things like door handles, faucets, and remote controls may often be overlooked, but you touch these surfaces so frequently that they can easily be a source of infection.

Get Vaccinated

For the vast majority of people, there is no good reason to avoid vaccines. Countless studies have shown that they are safe, effective, and save millions of lives each year.

Unless you have a valid medical reason not to, get your vaccines each year, including the flu vaccine. It doesn't offer 100% protection, but you are far less likely to get seriously ill from the flu if you have been vaccinated against it.

You might think the flu is just a mild illness, but it isn't. It kills tens of thousands of people in the United States each year, and hundreds of thousands more are hospitalized because of it. Getting the vaccine can help prevent that.

Adults may think they don't need any vaccines other than the flu shot, but that isn't necessarily true. All adults also need a Td (tetanus and diphtheria) or Tdap vaccine, which will protect you from tetanus, pertussis, and diphtheria. While those may not sound particularly serious to you, pertussis (commonly called whooping cough) rates are rising, and it can be fatal for young infants. The vaccine against it that you got when you were a child likely isn't providing protection anymore, and you can spread the disease to children if you have it.

Additionally, if you are in a high-risk group or are over age 65, you should get a pneumonia vaccine. It provides protection against the most common types of pneumonia caused by Pneumococcus bacteria.

If you have a child, get them vaccinated according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and CDC's vaccine schedule. These are safe, effective vaccines that can protect your child from serious and often deadly illnesses.

What About Supplements?

There is a huge section of the pharmaceutical market that aims to help you avoid colds, the flu, and other illnesses with supplements, herbs, oils, or vitamins.

Although research is limited, studies have been done on some of the more popular remedies such as vitamin C, echinacea, and elderberry. Unfortunately, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine notes that science doesn't back use of these products to prevent or treat colds or influenza.

Another problem with this section of the market is that it's almost completely unregulated. As long as these products include the disclaimer that they are not intended to treat or prevent a disease, they can be produced with no oversight from any government agency to ensure their quality or safety. Many of these products don't even contain the ingredients that are listed on their containers, so you are not necessarily taking what you thought you purchased.

If you know that your body is deficient in certain vitamins or minerals, taking supplements to increase those levels is probably beneficial, but you should talk to your healthcare provider first. If it's possible, getting those nutrients through food is better than taking supplements.

A Word From Verywell

You can't prevent every single illness, but there are things you could be doing more often to protect yourself and your family. Supporting your immune system so it can do its job well is a good thing, but so is doing your part to avoid germs when you can. There's a reasonable middle ground between "living in a bubble" and never washing your hands. If you follow the guidelines listed here, you'll be on your way to your healthiest year yet.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy habits to help prevent flu. Updated November 7, 2019.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When and how to wash your hands. Updated October 3, 2019.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health effects of cigarette smoking. Updated January 17, 2018.

  4. Cleveland Clinic. Dehydration. Updated May 9, 2019.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seasonal flu shot. Updated December 9, 2019.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What vaccines are recommended for you. Updated November 21, 2019.

  7. O’Holloran PL, Chen J, Foppa IM, et al. Influenza vaccine effectiveness against pediatric deaths: 2010–2014. Pediatrics. 2017. 39(5). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-4244

  8. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Flu and colds: In depth. Updated November 2016.

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