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Preventing Cold & Flu: How Doctors Keep Germs at Bay

Doctors give their top tips for avoiding nasty cold and flu germs.
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WebMD Magazine - Feature

With cold and flu season in full swing, we wondered how top docs personally battle nasty bugs each winter. Here are their expert tips for keeping pains, aches, sniffles, and sneezes at bay.

Wash your hands to keep germs away

The advice you’ve probably heard dozens of times from your doctor -- wash your hands throughout the day -- really does prevent infections, and all the doctors we talked to said they do it religiously. “I wash my hands or use a hand sanitizer before and after every patient,” says Christopher Tolcher, MD, a pediatrician in the Los Angeles area and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles. “I probably wash my hands 40 to 50 times a day.”

What to use? Warm water and soap will kill the germs, but be sure you don’t rush. “I try to wash for 20 seconds -- sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to myself twice,” says Nancy Hughes, MS, RN, director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health in Silver Spring, Md. She’s also careful after she washes. “I use a paper towel to dry my hands and to turn off the faucet, especially in public bathrooms.”

No matter how clean they may be, remember this: Hands are veritable germ factories, so keep them away from your nose and mouth. Also keep them away from your food during cold and flu season. “I try to bring something I can eat with a spoon or fork, rather than a sandwich I have to handle,” says Sandra Fryhofer, MD, MACP, clinical associate professor at Emory University School of Medicine and a general internist in Atlanta. “If you’re going to eat a sandwich, put a tissue or paper towel around it.”

Keep cold and flu germs off surfaces

Colds and flu are caused by viruses, which can easily pass from person to person, or from surface to person.

“Computer keyboards, telephones, doorknobs, pens that are given to you when you sign for a credit card purchase or in a doctor’s office -- all of these are surfaces that have great potential for harboring germs,” says Neil Schachter, MD, professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and author of The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds and Flu.  

“I make it a point of carrying around little bottles of alcohol-based cleansers, and I use them liberally after I suspect that I’ve been exposed,” he says.

“I have antiseptic wipes, and I regularly clean my desktop and my phone,” Tolcher says. “I clean my stethoscope and even my pens with alcohol every day.”

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