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What's the best way to avoid getting sick? Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently, experts say. 
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updated 2/24/2009 11:36:46 AM ET 2009-02-24T16:36:46

Every year you watch as colds and the flu pass from co-worker to co-worker, hoping you're not next on the office's hit list — and then you end up getting sick anyway.

A weak immune system or plain bad luck might be to blame. But it's more likely that you and your colleagues unknowingly have a few bad habits that make it easy for a virus and its accompanying misery to spread in your office.

If you want to avoid falling victim this year, infectious disease specialists say extra vigilance about hand hygiene, among other precautions, might do the trick.

"We know that some years (viruses) are more severe than others," says Dr. Neil Fishman, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and director of the Department of Healthcare Epidemiology and Infection Control for the University of Pennsylvania Health System. "But it's not impossible to totally avoid getting sick."

Top targets
In order to understand how to avoid the office bug you first need to know what you're up against when cold and flu season strikes. While cold viruses are present year round, the number rises as the weather cools. Cold, dry air drains the normal amount of mucus we carry in our nasal passages, making it easier for viruses to attach to the tissues in your nose, Fishman says. We also tend to spend more time indoors during the winter months — ordering in lunch instead of going out, for instance — increasing our chances of contact with someone who is sick.

There's a good chance you'll run into infected people in your office, in particular, because taking a sick day isn't considered a possibility by some people. In a 2007 CCH survey of more than 300 human resource executives in U.S. organizations, 38 percent said presenteeism, when sick employees show up for work, was a problem in their organizations. In addition, 87 percent said those employees usually have illnesses like colds or the flu, according to CCH, a provider of tax and business law information and software solutions. Past research led by Walter "Buzz" Stewart, director of the Geisinger Center for Health Research, has estimated that presenteeism costs U.S. businesses $150 billion per year in productivity.

Just how easily can a cold spread? If you're one of those types who desperately tries to avoid sitting next to a sniffling, sneezing and wheezing colleague during a meeting, you've got good reason.

"If you had X-ray vision," says Dr. William Schaffner, professor and chair of the Vanderbilt Department of Preventive Medicine and vice president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, "you would see a cloud of viruses around them. Every time they exhale, respiratory viruses come out, extending about three feet, creating a cloud around them."

But that's not the only way you could fall ill. Research out of the University of Virginia Health System in 2006 showed that people infected with rhinovirus, the cause of half of all colds, can contaminate common objects, such as light switches, which can infect others. To make matters worse, the day before you actually come down with a cold you're already excreting virus. In other words, the co-worker who hovered over your desk the other day or borrowed your ID badge could be sick but not have symptoms yet.

Handy advice
Ask an infectious disease specialist how not to get sick, no matter where you are, and they'll tell you one thing over and over: wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. Most organisms are more easily transmitted through hand contact than sneezes, says Dr. Bill Sutker, medical director of infectious diseases at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. Once we come into contact with a virus, all we have to do is rub our noses, scratch the area around our eyes or touch our mouths and we're in trouble.

You should also try to avoid touching your face with unwashed hands, but that can be harder than it sounds. If you have an itch on your face, you tend to scratch it without stopping to think about whether your hands are clean.

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If you've got a lot of door handles in between your office's bathroom sink and your desk, consider trying the old method of using a paper towel as a protective barrier for your hand or keep a bottle of hand sanitizer on your desk. Since not everyone spends the recommended 15 seconds scrubbing, an alcohol-based gel is a good back-up method, Sutker says.

Unfortunately, your best bet for boosting your immunity also does not come in pill or powder form. Most doctors agree there's not enough evidence to recommend people take products packed with vitamin C or Echinacea to ward off the office bug. You'd be much better off regularly taking a multivitamin and focusing on some of the cornerstones of good health, such as regular exercise, proper nutrition and a good night's sleep, says Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. While some genetics are involved, your immunity is basically a function of how healthy you are overall.

Of course, no matter how strong your immune system is or how many precautions you take you may not be able to avoid every cold that passes through the halls of your office. But it's always worth a shot.

More on  careers   |  office illness

© 2012 Forbes.com

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