Which Habits Really Help You Avoid Colds and Flu?

There’s a chill in the air, tree branches are bare, and the holidays have come and gone. It can mean only one thing: Cold and flu season has officially arrived.

Fortunately, you can take some steps that really safeguard against germs. But others you may have heard of don't work as well, or at all. Here, two germ experts weigh in on which ones are worth it and a couple that aren't. 

Use hand sanitizer: Worth it

“Hand sanitizers have gotten better in recent years,” explains Charles Gerba, PhD, a germ expert and environmental biologist at the University of Arizona. Look for one that contains 60% alcohol. That's the amount needed to kill germs. 

You don’t have to overdo it, Gerba says. Use it once or twice during a typical day, as well as after using public transportation, when you get home, or before you eat (if you can’t wash your hands).  

Wash your hands constantly: Not (necessarily) worth it

This isn’t a free pass to skip the sink. Hand washing, especially after using the restroom or before you eat, is still crucial for protecting yourself from cold and flu germs. But you may not need to lather up after every handshake when hand sanitizer kills germs just as well. Plus there's less room for error: Only 5% of people wash their hands for long enough to effectively get rid of germs, research shows, and only two out of three people bother to use soap!  

Turn off the faucet with a paper towel: Worth it

“The faucet handle is the most contaminated surface in a restroom,” Gerba says. Using the same towel to open the restroom door on the way out is also a good idea. 

Skip the hand dryer: Worth it

These machines aren’t only annoyingly loud, but they could be hazardous to your health. Studies find that a jet air dryer spreads 1,300 times more germs than paper towels . Use paper towels if available, or air dry your hands.

Use a paper toilet seat cover: Not worth it

The porcelain throne is actually one of the cleanest spots of a public restroom because they’re often cleaned with disinfectants, Gerba says. 

If it gives you peace of mind, go for it, but that thin piece of paper isn’t going to do much good, since fluid can go right through it, says Philip Tierno, PhD, microbiologist and clinical professor of pathology at New York University. But chances are good you’re not going to come in contact with anything that can infect you, he says. 

Touch elevator buttons with your knuckle or sleeve: Worth it

The ground-floor button, which everyone touches, can get especially grimy, Gerba says. 

Avoid shaking hands or hugging people who appear ill: Worth it

Explain that you’re not being rude; you’re protecting your health. Both experts say they avoid touching friends and relatives who are sick, especially if they’re coughing and sneezing.

Keep your fingers off your face: Worth it

Touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with germy hands is a surefire way to get sick. And you may be doing it more than you realize. One study found the average adult touches their face about 16 times per hour.

Bring your own yoga mat to class: Worth it

Doing downward dog can deliver plenty of health benefits, but your yoga mat can also be a prime place for germs, Tierno says. Make sure to clean it with antibacterial wipes after every use.

Wipe down gym equipment: Worth it

Working out can play a role in boosting your immune system, but exercise equipment is pretty dirty. One study found the virus that causes the common cold is present on 63% of gym machines. Protect yourself from germs as you work out by wiping gym equipment with a towel before using it. (Tierno suggests using your own towel and marking an X on the “dirty” side.) 

Wear a surgical mask on airplanes: Actually worth it!

It’s not overkill, Tierno says, especially if someone behind, beside, or in front of you is sneezing and coughing. Any further away, you’re probably safe. 

WebMD Article Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on December 27, 2016

Sources

Charles Gerba, PhD, an environmental biologist, University of Arizona Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

Philip Tierno, PhD, microbiologist and clinical professor of pathology, New York University.

American Academy of Pediatrics. 

Journal of Environmental Health. 

Journal of Applied Microbiology.


National Institutes of Health.

Harvard Medical School.

CDC.

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