How to Reduce Your Risk of Infectious Diseases

10 Simple Tips Everyone Should Practice

Staying healthy involves many different day-to-day habits. Avoiding infections is an important aspect of preventing both the short-term inconvenience of being sick, the long-term complications, and reducing the risk of spreading infections to others who might be especially vulnerable to severe illness.

With the worldwide attention of the COVID-19 risks and prevention, more people are taking steps to avoid the spread of infections—and the results benefit everyone.

Man washing hands in sink
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There are several simple and effective ways to reduce your risk of transmittable infections no matter the type. Here are 10 to add to your personal preventive practices.

Wash Your Hands

Many infectious microbes can live on surfaces anywhere from a few minutes to several months at a time, depending on the environment and pathogen (disease-producing microorganism). This means that some viruses and bacteria may be able to persist on surfaces that you touch regularly, such as your computer keyboard, light switch, or a doorknob.

Hand-to-face and hand-to-mouth transmission are among the most common ways that infectious diseases are spread. To help reduce this type of spread, routine handwashing is recommended to limit pathogen exposure on your mouth, eyes, or nose.

How to Wash Your Hands Properly

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing your hands thoroughly and vigorously with soap and water for at least 20 seconds—about as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice—followed by hand drying with a clean towel or air drying.

If you don't have water and soap with you, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer or wipe will do the job.

It is also important to avoid picking your nose or biting your nails, especially if your hands are not washed. Teach your kids to do the same.

Avoid Sharing Personal Items

Toothbrushes, towels, razors, handkerchiefs, and nail clippers can all be sources of infectious pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. These objects are referred to as fomites, a term used to describe objects or materials that can carry infection, such as clothes, utensils, or furniture.

While many pathogens have a low risk of transmission via fomites, there are some that are potentially spread this way.

These include:

It is important to teach your kids not to put toys and objects in their mouths and to avoid doing so yourself (such as chewing on a pencil).

Cover Your Mouth

Good hygiene includes the age-old practice of covering your mouth whenever you cough or sneeze.

Many respiratory infections are spread by droplets that can infect people who are nearby. Others are spread by airborne transmission in which tiny aerosol particles can travel for longer distances to infect others.

The risk is higher with upper respiratory tract infections in which the viral or bacterial particles mainly reside in the nose and throat. And even some lower respiratory tract infections like tuberculosis can be spread when a person coughs.

To prevent the spread of respiratory infections, the CDC recommends that you cover your mouth with your arm, sleeve, or the crook of your elbow rather than using your bare hands.

Get Vaccinated

Your immune system is designed to have a "memory" of previous infections, enabling a rapid response (in the form of specific antibodies, B cells, or T cells) if the pathogen ever returns.

Vaccination does more or less the same thing, exposing the body to a weakened or killed form of the pathogen so that the same defensive cells are produced.

Getting the immunizations you need will protect you and those around you from infection and illness. This is a recommended schedule for children as well as a list of recommended vaccines and booster shots for adults (including the annual flu shot).

Vaccines Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Mom and Baby

Wear a Face Mask

Face masks became a part of people's everyday lives with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Face masks help you avoid getting an infectious respiratory disease and prevent you from infecting others if you're infected. As such, the practice of wearing a face mask should be adhered to in any situation when you have respiratory symptoms and are unable to isolate.

How to Choose a Face Mask

The CDC recommends that you find a face mask that:

  • Has two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric
  • Completely covers your nose and mouth
  • Fits snugly against the sides of your face without gaps

Practice Food Safety

Foodborne illnesses have many causes. This includes gastroenteritis (sometimes referred to as the stomach flu), a viral disease primarily transmitted through contaminated food or water. This also includes food poisoning, which is caused by any one of more than 250 possible contaminants (including bacteria, viruses, parasite, toxins, and chemicals).

Microbes thrive on virtually all food items, particularly foods left at room temperature. Prompt refrigeration within two hours of food preparation can usually slow or stop the growth of most microbes.

In addition, using separate cutting boards—one for raw meats and the other for produce—can prevent cross-contamination. Be sure to keep your countertops immaculately clean, wash your hands frequently, and wash all raw fruits and vegetables prior to eating.

If you have a compromised immune system (have reduced ability to fight infections), you may need to go one step further by cooking meats until well done and peeling or scraping all vegetables and fruits. This precaution especially applies to pregnant women, the elderly, and young children who are at higher risk of harm from food poisoning.

Travel Safely

Infectious diseases can easily be picked up while traveling, particularly when traveling to resource-limited countries.

There are steps you can take to reduce your risk:

  • Be careful about water: If the water quality at your destination is questionable, use bottled water for drinking and brushing your teeth. You also need to avoid ice cubes, which may be contaminated.
  • Avoid raw or undercooked meat, chicken, or fish: Make sure to only eat these foods if they are fully cooked.
  • Sae preparation of vegetables and fruits: When you eat fruit, choose those that can be peeled, and make sure the peel does not come into contact with the rest of the fruit during peeling.

Finally, be sure you are up to date on all immunizations recommended or advised for people traveling to your destinations. You can reference these by accessing the CDC's Travelers' Health site.

The CDC's website also offers up-to-the-minute travel notices about outbreaks and other health concerns (both domestic and international), as well as advisories about outbreaks of food-borne infections.

If you are immunocompromised, speak with your healthcare provider before traveling since certain vaccines (like the yellow fever vaccine) may not be safe for you.

Practice Safe Sex

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can often be prevented by using condoms consistently and limiting your number of sex partners. This can reduce your risk of infection and your risk of infecting others.

Some cancers are related to viral infections, including sexually transmitted ones like human papillomavirus (HPV).

If you are at high risk of exposure to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), in addition to these safer sex practices, there is a drug therapy called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) that can reduce your risk of getting HIV by around 90%.

Avoid Animal-Borne Diseases

Infections that can spread from animals to people, called zoonotic diseases, are more common than some may realize. If you have pets, make sure they get regular checkups and that their vaccinations are up to date.

Clean litter boxes frequently and keep small children away from animal feces. If you are pregnant or immunocompromised, have someone else take care of the litter box—cat feces are often the source of toxoplasmosis and cytomegalovirus (CMV).

Wild animals also pose risks, including rabies, bird flu, and flea- or tick-borne illness like Lyme disease. To better prevent these, make your home unfriendly to rodents by eliminating areas where they could hide or build nests.

Use animal-proof trash cans to avoid attracting wildlife, and teach small children that wild animals should never be approached or touched.

Take Care in Hospitals

Hospital-acquired infections, known as nosocomial infections, are a significant cause of illness and death in the United States and around the world. Because they house people with numerous diseases and infections, hospitals can become breeding grounds for infections, including hard-to-treat methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Hospital Safety Tips

To reduce your risk of hospital-acquired infections:

  • Check hospital rating sites (such as the Leapfrog Hospital Survey) to find those with the best cleanliness and safety standards.
  • See if you can get a private room.
  • Bring antiseptic wipes or handwash (or ask the hospital to provide them for you).
  • Bring a germ-filtering mask if you are in a semiprivate room or ward.
  • Never go barefoot in the hospital.

These preventive practices should extend to outpatient facilities as well, particularly if you may be immunosuppressed. This includes chemotherapy infusion centers (where you get treatment for cancer) and dialysis centers (treatment center for help removing waste products and fluids from your blood to aid your kidneys).

A Word From Verywell

Another way to prevent infection is to live a lifestyle that keeps you healthy: Eat a healthy diet, get routine exercise, and engage in stress reduction. With this in place, your immune system may be better able to defend against some mild community-spread infections.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Ingrid Koo, PhD
 Ingrid Koo, PhD, is a medical and science writer who specializes in clinical trial reporting