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Is that pile of used tissues on your coworker's desk making you uneasy about cold and flu germs? Or do you feel a cold coming on and you're worried about spreading it to your family? Either way, it's time to take some simple steps to stop the spread of germs -- as well as a lot of sneezing, coughing, and all-around misery.

Wash your hands. It's the single most effective way to stop the spread of germs. Once cold and flu germs are on your hands, it's very easy for them to get into your body when you touch your eyes or mouth.

Washing knocks germs off your hands and down the drain. Do it thoroughly:

  • Use soap and water.
  • Scrub for at least 20 seconds.
  • Get in the habit of washing your hands before eating or preparing food and after using the bathroom or changing a diaper.
  • If you're taking care of a sick person, wash your hands before and after being with them.

Use hand sanitizer. If you can't get to a sink, the next best thing is an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Buy one with at least 60% alcohol. Rub it all over your hands and keep rubbing until your hands are dry. Keep small bottles of hand sanitizer with you -- at work, in your car, and in your purse.

Cover your nose and mouth. It's one of the best ways to keep from spreading germs. If you can, cough or sneeze into a tissue, then throw it out promptly. If you're empty-handed, don't cough into your hand. You'll just smear germs on the next thing you touch. Instead, cough into the crook of your elbow.

Disinfect your space. You don't need to spend all day spraying disinfectant on every surface of your house. Still, if someone in your family is sick, use a household disinfectant to wipe down high-traffic spots: computers, phones, doorknobs, and remotes.

Use disposables. Cold and flu germs can cling to fabric. So when someone in your house is sick, replace hand towels and dishrags with paper towels. Remove water glasses and add paper cups in the bathroom, too.

Get a flu vaccine. Anyone over 6 months old should get a flu vaccine.If you or someone in your family is in any of the following high-risk groups, it's particularly important. High-risk groups include:

  • Children
  • Adults older than 50
  • Women who'll be pregnant during flu season
  • Nursing home residents
  • People with asthma or another chronic heart or lung condition
  • People with diabetes or another condition that weakens the immune system
  • Health care workers

For the best protection, get the flu vaccine when it comes out each year in October or November. But even later is better than not at all. It takes 2 weeks for the flu vaccine to take effect, and flu season can last into March or April.