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How To Stay Well (When Everyone Else Is Sick)

No need to go into hiding: These research-proven strategies will protect you at the office, on planes, and in crowded malls

At the Mall

• Suds up before hitting the food court. The sanitizing hand goop in the dispenser at the food court (or in your purse) does a good job of killing bacteria and seasonal viruses like those that cause colds and flu. But it hardly makes a dent against the noroviruses that cause the stomach flu. In studies at Emory, hand sanitizers with 62% or 63% alcohol (the amount in most major brands, such as Purell, Infectigard, and Germ-X) killed only a fraction of noroviruses. Even products with alcohol content of up to 95% failed to wipe them all out.

But the Emory research did suggest an effective tactic against these resilient bugs: physically forcing the virus off your hands with the help of running water. Dampen your hands, soap them, and rub together for 20 seconds (about as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice), then rinse with warm running water. Just be sure to use a paper towel to shut off the faucet and to turn the doorknob on the restroom door after washing. That way, your hands will be norovirus-free when you grab hold of your burger, fries, or slice.

When Flying

• Keep nasal passages moisturized. An analysis of more than 1,100 airline passengers several years ago found that you are 23 times more likely to catch a cold on a plane than during normal daily life on the ground. The culprit is probably the low humidity typical of aircraft cabins: It dries out the sticky mucus in your nose, compromising its ability to trap and eliminate viruses, says study coauthor Martin B. Hocking, Ph.D., professor emeritus of environmental chemistry at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Moreover, most cold-causing viruses survive better when humidity is low, increasing the chance that a virus will spread from passenger to passenger. (Recirculated air in a plane isn't to blame: A University of California, San Francisco, study found passengers were just as likely to experience cold symptoms if the cabin contained fresh air.)

There's no proven way to lower your risk when flying, but products that combat the drying out of nasal passages may help, especially during flights lasting more than two hours, says Hocking. Some to try: saline nasal drops, sprays, or gels (brands include Ayr, Ocean, Simply Saline), or moisturizing nasal swabs (SkyCap). At the very least, they'll help you breathe more comfortably, preventing nasal crusting, itching, and congestion.

Debunking Myths About How to Stay Well

Surgical masks: Aside from being impractical — "You can't wear a mask 24/7 for the entire flu season," points out Ben J. Cowling, Ph.D., a public health researcher at the University of Hong Kong — masks don't work. In a study in hospitals and dormitories, Cowling found little evidence of protection against infection. And when researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine sprayed 28 volunteers with live flu virus, all those wearing masks became sick. The problem: "Masks leak, allowing virus to enter from the sides," says Cowling.

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