Cold and Flu Season: Limit the Spread of Germs

Medically Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on June 05, 2016
3 min read

Someone in your house has the flu or a cold, and everyone else is scared of catching it. Try these six strategies to stay healthy.

Colds and flu are spread mostly by direct contact. When a sick person coughs or sneezes, virus droplets can travel 6 feet or more.

If you're in close quarters, ask the sick person to:

  • Cover their mouth and nose with a tissue and put the tissue in the trash right away.
  • Cough or sneeze into the crook of their elbow -- not their hand -- if they don't have a tissue. That means fewer germs get on their hands, which means they're less likely to spread their germs through touch.

Washing your hands is the best way to keep from catching a cold. Other than getting a flu vaccine, it's the best way to prevent the flu, too.

Running your fingertips under water doesn't count. “The mechanics of the hand-washing make all the difference,” says Terri Remy, MD, medical director of Medical Associates at Beauregard in Alexandria, Va.

Sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice while you scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. The forceful rubbing is the most important part in getting rid of the germs. It should take about 20 seconds.

Other clean-hand tips:

  • Wash your hands after handling any item the sick person may have touched, like a dish, cup, or towel.
  • Don't touch your face unless you’ve just washed your hands.

Some cold and flu viruses can live on skin and other things a sick person might touch -- doorknobs, remote controls, faucet handles -- for up to 8 hours. And it would be hard for a healthy person to avoid touching all of those things.

Set aside a room for whoever is sick, says Ardis Dee Hoven, MD, an infectious disease specialist. The sick person can stay there while getting better. Set up the room with everything they might need, like tissues, medicine, a thermometer, and a pitcher or cooler with drinks.

Ideally, just one person would take care of the sick one. Everyone else should stay out of the sick room. “No one goes in there to visit or watch TV," Hoven says. "That’s a very simple way to contain a virus.”

If you have more than one bathroom, reserve one just for the sick person. Tell family members to use the other bathroom. If you're all sharing one bathroom, give whoever is sick a separate towel and washcloth.

If you can't avoid sharing doorknobs and other household items, clean before you touch them. If you want, use a cleaner with ingredients that can kill flu viruses, like bleach, hydrogen peroxide, antiseptics with iodine, and alcohol. But good old soap and water also work well.

The best way to keep the flu away is to get the flu vaccine before the season starts. And it wouldn’t hurt to boost your usual wellness routine. "Be conscious about getting enough sleep, adequate nutrition, staying hydrated, getting exercise,” Hoven says. “Whatever [you] do to stay healthy, work a little harder at it.”