Colds and the flu make millions of people miserable every year. And last year's flu season was particularly harsh: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention it was a "high severity season," that begin last November. While these viruses are rampant this time of year, there are a few things people don’t know about them — and what you don't know might make you sick.
Here's some advice from the experts to keep you and your family healthy this year.
1. It’s better to kiss than shake hands.
The cold virus lives in the nose, and throughout the day people mindlessly touch their faces. That’s how about a third of people end up with a cold virus on their hands, said Charles Gerba, professor of microbiology and environmental sciences at the University of Arizona. So it’s wise to skip the handshake.
“Usually people have (the cold virus) on their hand,” he says. “You are more likely to get (a cold) from shaking hands than kissing.”
While kissing at work sounds like a bad idea, he suggested opting for a back slap or a fist bump.
2. A meditation a day may keep the doctor away.
Taking time to breathe deeply or sweat during the day might protect people from getting sick.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, led by Dr. Bruce Barrett found that people who exercise or mindfully meditate suffer from acute respiratory infections less often than people who don’t.
“People who are exercising are less likely to get colds,” noted Dr. Jon Temte, a University of Wisconsin professor, who was not involved in the study.
Why? It’s probably because exercise boosts the immune system. Plus, people who handle stress well are probably better able to fight off germs.
“Handling stress well … has an effect on minimizing the stress hormones [and boosts] your ability to be strong,” said Dr. Amy Crawford-Faucher, a physician in Pennsylvania.
3. The cold weather really may make you more vulnerable.
If your grandmother ever warned you to wear a coat because the cold will make you sick and you dismissed her advice as folklore, think again.
Researchers at Yale University found that the cold virus replicates quicker in colder temperatures. And the cells in our airways don't do as good a job of fighting off viruses when we're exposed to lower temperatures. While the research was conducted in animal models, it’s probably wise to bundle up when going outside.
4. Hermits are healthier.
The best way to avoid a cold or the flu? Stay home.
“The hermit is less likely to get (a virus) than the politician,” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.
While it is easy to avoid people who are visibly ill, Schaffner said many people are sick before the symptoms begin. That means they look and feel healthy but they’re spreading the virus to everyone they encounter.
A study looking at the start of H1N1 swine flu in Mexico City found that people who stayed home were less likely to get sick, which slowed the spread of infection.
5. Mind the membranes.
“A lot of the viruses are transmitted from hand to mouth or hand to nose or hand to eye,” explained Temte.
It’s tempting to rub an itchy eye, but that’s a sure way to spread illness.
“We are bathing in this stuff every day and the thing you should do is make sure [germs] don’t get to your mucous membranes,” said Crawford- Faucher.
Aside from being mindful about touching your face, experts agree that washing your hands frequently during cold and flu season is the best defense for preventing illness.
This story was originally published in February 2015.