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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

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.

Antibiotics: Last year, a University of Pennsylvania study found that 67% of hospitalized adults who'd been given antibiotics for respiratory infections continued to receive them even after their illnesses had been identified as viral. Antibiotics destroy bacteria, not viruses, so taking them won't help you get better any faster if a cold or flu virus is what's causing your symptoms. If you or your doctor thinks you might have flu, ask about a flu test, which should give results in less than 24 hours. Rapid flu tests can be moderately expensive, but most insurers will cover them. Depending on what your doctor thinks is safer, you can either start antibiotics immediately and quit taking them if the test results are positive for a flu virus or just wait for results before filling your prescription.

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