Most Americans start back to school and work next week and they’ll be bringing who-knows-what germs with them from Grandma’s, the airport or from being cooped up with sneezy siblings.
Here’s how you can minimize your chances of getting the flu:
1. Wash your hands. It’ll protect you from all sorts of nasty bugs, from influenza to one of the hundreds of common cold viruses. Viruses and bacteria are most often carried on your fingers – they can live on surfaces such as table tops and get carried to the eyes, nose or mouth.
A quick rinse isn’t enough. You’re trying to remove sticky germs, so lather up, wash the whole hand and sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice (to yourself if you don’t want people staring at you) while soaping and rinsing. Schools, especially, should encourage and facilitate frequent hand-washing, public health experts say.
2. Get vaccinated. The flu vaccine isn’t a perfect match for all the flu circulating this year, but it can protect against some of the strains. Flu vaccines are formulated to protect against either three or four of the circulating flu viruses. And experts say even if you get infected, having been vaccinated can reduce the severity of illness.
3. Clean, clean, clean. It doesn’t take much to kill or remove most germs. Schools should take special care to encourage daily cleaning of desks, doorknobs and keyboards. At work, the coffee pot and computer keyboards are usually the germiest places – elevator buttons and light switches are less likely to be contaminated.
Flu viruses don’t live long out in the open –maybe two to eight hours, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises. So the best time to clean is after people have been present for a while – a first-thing-in-the-morning clean might be a waste of time, whereas a lunchtime sweep with disinfectant wipes might be perfect.
4. Keep your distance. It may seem obvious but people can spread flu and other germs by sneezing, coughing or even just by talking. Flu, especially, can spread before people show symptoms and after they are feeling better. But the virus particles do not spread far – a few feet should keep you safe.
5. Use hand sanitizer. Soap and water is best for removing germs and washing them down the drain, but alcohol-based hand gels can work in a pinch. They don’t kill all germs effectively, the CDC advises, and “natural” products such as witch hazel don’t kill them much at all. It’s important to use enough of the product, also – you have to really soak your hands in the gel or foam for it to work. Medical-standard agents such as chlorhexidine, triclosan or benzethonium chloride can also be effective.