Common Cold Prevention

If you want to craft a battle plan to prevent colds, you don't have to think long and hard about it. Just remember three simple words: Wash your hands!

There's no secret in why that works. It's all due to the way colds spread.

How You Get Infected

The main way colds get passed around is when someone who's sick coughs or sneezes. Little droplets with germs land on places like doorknobs, telephones, and computer keyboards. Or the sick person coughs or sneezes into their hands and then touches those objects.

Then you come along, happy and healthy, and touch that spot. Next, without even realizing it, you might touch your nose and mouth. Voila! In an instant you're infected.

Why Hand Washing Works

Some viruses -- tiny living things that cause colds -- can live on surfaces for hours. Regular hand washing is your best strategy to keep them from getting inside your body. And of course, if you're the one who's sick, washing up will keep you from spreading your germs.

There's some evidence behind this. A program called Operation Stop Cough was started at a military recruit training command center in Illinois. As part of the program, recruits were told to wash their hands at least five times a day. After 2 years, the hand-washing team reported 45% fewer cases of respiratory illness, compared with sickness rates among recruits during the year before the program started.

How Should I Wash My Hands for Cold Prevention?

Many of us get so busy, we simply forget to wash our hands the right way. Here's the drill:

  • First, wet your hands with water. Then add soap.
  • Rub them together vigorously for 20 seconds. Make sure to rub the wrists, between the fingers, and under the fingernails. When you have time, use a nailbrush, as germs often hide under nails.
  • Rinse your hands thoroughly and dry with a clean paper towel or air dryer.
  • If you are in a public restroom, shut the faucet off with a paper towel. Try to push the door open with your shoulder, or use another paper towel to turn the knob.

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How Much Hand Washing Is Enough to Prevent Colds?

You should wash hands often throughout the day. For example, do it before and after you eat, after using the bathroom, after school, and after handling any raw meat, unwashed vegetables, or garbage.

Also wash your hands after coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose, or touching your pet. If you're babysitting, wash before and after changing a baby's diapers and before and after feedings.

What if I'm Not Near a Sink?

Keep an alcohol-based sanitizer for hands if a sink is unavailable. It should be at least 60% alcohol.

Rub the entire surface of your hands, fingers, and wrist with the sanitizer until dry. You can use this throughout the day if you're not near a bathroom. Follow up with a thorough hand scrub when you're near a sink to prevent buildup of the sanitizer.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on September 17, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:
CDC: "CDC Clean Hands Campaign," "Clean Hands Save Lives," "Stop the Spread of Germs."
FDA: "Hand Washing."
Thompson, K. Overkill, Rodale Books, 2002.

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