7 Habits That Keep Colds and Flu at Bay

Reduce your chances of getting sick this season

Your coworker is coughing. The guy behind you in the checkout line is sneezing. And the kids have the sniffles again. Is there any hope you won't catch their bugs?

"No single factor is going to make the difference in whether or not you get sick," says Glen Stream, M.D., of the American Academy of Family Physicians. "But a combination of preventive measures can reduce your risk." Here's what you can do to improve your chances of staying well this cold and flu season:

Keep your hands clean. "You've heard it before, but hand-washing works," says microbiologist Kelly A. Reynolds, M.S.P.H., Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Arizona. "Since we often touch our faces throughout the day without realizing it, hand-washing keeps germs away from our noses, eyes and mouth." Wash up before you eat or prepare food; after touching surfaces in the office such as the copier, file cabinet drawers or vending machines; and after doing errands when you're touching surfaces such as elevator buttons and door handles. Teach the kids to wash their hands during the day and to wash them again as soon as they get home from school or the playground.

Take your time. “Most people don’t scrub long enough,” says Dr. Reynolds. “Wash for 20 to 30 seconds, including between fingers and the backs of your hands. The soap and the scrubbing action helps dislodge germs embedded in skin cells and oils on your skin.” Sing the ABCs or “Happy Birthday” twice to be sure you’re spending enough time. Use warm water, which is better for lathering up the cleaning agents in soap. Liquid soap is also preferable because bacteria can be deposited on bar soap.

Use hand sanitizers as a backup. Soap and water are best, but hand sanitizers are effective if you can’t get to a sink. “I keep a bottle on my desk so it’s a visible reminder to use it frequently throughout the day,” says Dr. Reynolds. And don’t be stingy: use a big dollop to wet hands thoroughly, and then rub all over—just like you’re washing your hands—until dry. Sanitizer hand wipes are another good choice because the friction of rubbing them between your hands helps remove some germs.

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