How to Avoid Cold and Flu Germs

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on October 14, 2019

Most people get at least 2 colds a year. You might also be one of the 1 in 5 Americans who come down with the flu.

But if you take the right steps, you can beat those odds and make this cold and flu season different.

Do these 8 things to avoid the bugs that bring you down. Keep your sick days for when you might need them more.

1. Check Your Calendar

You’re most likely to come down with a cold or flu between September and May. So be extra careful during those months, especially if:

  • You’re older than 65
  • You have an ongoing health condition (like asthma, diabetes, heart disease, or HIV/AIDS)
  • You take any medicine that affects your immune system
  • You’re around children younger than 2

The flu virus hits these groups hardest.

Time your flu vaccination to make it more effective. It will take two weeks for the protection to start. So get vaccinated in the early fall, before flu season begins.

The vaccine won’t stop you from catching colds, but it guards against the flu strains that experts expect to be common that year. It can also make your symptoms of the flu milder if you do get sick.

2. Sneezy Pal? Keep Your Distance

Cold and flu germs pass through the air from person to person.

When a sick person coughs, sneezes, or talks, tiny drops of mucus hit the air. You can take them in through your mouth or nose.

How far away should you stay from someone who's sick? Those droplets can spread out to about 6 feet. So, keep your distance, if you can.

People are most contagious when they first have symptoms like a runny nose, cough, or body aches.

3. Keep Towels Separate

You wouldn’t share a tissue with someone, but most of us forget that bathroom towels harbor germs too.

When someone in your home has the flu, put out an extra hand towel for others to use. Or, use paper towels.

4. Moisten the Air

If the air in your home or workplace is very dry, flu germs will stick around longer. Run a humidifier to make it harder for illness to spread. The moist air causes airborne germs to drop to the ground where they’re less likely to infect you.

5. Hands Off

Flu germs can live on hard surfaces like doorknobs and keyboards for up to 8 hours. Some viruses that cause the common cold can survive on surfaces -- even ones that have been cleaned -- for months. If you touch something that a sick person has coughed or sneezed on and then put your fingers near your eyes, nose, or mouth, you’re likely to get sick too.

6 Lather Up

Wash those bugs right off of your hands. Use warm water and soap, and scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.

This is especially important after you’ve been in a crowded area like a school, shopping center, or office where you could have come into contact with someone who’s sick.

If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

7. Get A Flu Shot

Get a flu shot each season to help prevent you from contracting the virus.

8. Go Back to Basics

Take care of yourself every day to help your body fight off cold and flu germs. You’ll want to get enough rest, to exercise, and to stay at a healthy weight.

Stick to a diet that’s high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. If you drink alcohol, limit it to small amounts. If you smoke, now would be a great time to quit because smoking can make flu and cold symptoms worse.

WebMD Medical Reference



CDC: “Preventing the Flu: Good Health Habits Can Help Stop Germs.”

CDC: “Preventing Seasonal Flu Illness.”

CDC: “Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others.”

CDC: “Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine.”

CDC: “Vaccine Effectiveness -- How Well Does the Flu Vaccine Work?”

CDC: “Seasonal Influenza Q&A.”

Marks, L. Infection and Immunity, March 2014.

Shaman, J. PLOS Biology, Feb. 23. 2010.

Noti, J. PLOS One, Feb. 27, 2013.

NHS: “Preventing Colds and Flu.”

Harvard Medical School: “How to Boost Your Immune System.”

News release, Yale University.

American Lung Association: “Facts About the Common Cold.”

Kaiser Permanente: “Hand Washing: Get the Upper Hand Over Germs.” “Symptoms.”

© 2019 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.
Click to view privacy policy and trust info