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How Not to Get a Cold/Virus

One simple trick can reduce your risk considerably.

It seems the season starts earlier every year. Not the holiday season — we know that starts earlier every year—but cold and flu season. Technically, the flu season begins around October each year; when temperatures cool, people spend more time indoors, making transmission of a virus or two that much easier. The average adult gets two to three colds a year.

If last year's flu season seemed longer than most, you're right: It lasted 21 weeks, the longest in a decade. Experts estimate there are about one billion colds each year. But coming down with something isn't inevitable. There are easy steps you can take to increase your chances of avoiding bugs.

How Not to Get a Cold

Experts are pretty much unanimous about the best way to prevent getting a cold or flu virus: Wash your hands regularly, and wash them well. (Or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.) 

Colds and flu are most often spread when someone sneezes or coughs the virus into the air, from close contact with someone who's carrying a virus (like by hugging or shaking hands), or by touching surfaces where the virus lurks, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. 

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And those surfaces can be the places you least expect. We all know the importance of handwashing after using a public restroom, but several common surfaces are much germier. Researchers have found that elevator buttons are 40 times germier than a toilet seat, cellphones are 10 times germier, and restaurant menus have 100 times more bugs. Another study found that half of shopping carts at an average grocery store had E. coli bacteria on the handles. Scientists at the University of Arizona did a study on germs in office spaces and found the break room, not the bathroom, a germ hotspot — when the researchers put a synthetic germ on the handle of an office coffee pot, it spread to nearly every surface in the office within four hours! 

All this is to say: Your best move is to be conscientious about washing your hands or using a generous squirt of hand sanitizer after touching heavily trafficked surfaces. Buy hand sanitizer and stash it in your purse, car, bag or briefcase. Use it after you open that coffee shop door and before you sit down to enjoy your latte, after you've handed your dinner menu back to the server, or once you've exited public transportation. You can buy travel-size packs of antibacterial wipes to bring with you to the grocery store to wipe down cart handles. 

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In terms of handwashing, if you think you've been lax about it, you're definitely not alone: A recent study found that 97% of us don't do it properly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing with soap and water for 20 seconds—about the time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice. 

There's no need to get paranoid and start pricing hazmat suits to don whenever you leave the house — just make hand washing or sanitizing a quick part of your routine, and you can really increase your chances of staying well this season. 

How Not to Get the Flu

In addition to following the steps above, you can lower your risk of getting the flu by getting an annual flu shot. The CDC recommends that every adult get one each year; the agency says it can reduce your chances of getting the flu by 30 to 60 percent.

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When to Worry

If you do come down with a cold or flu, the best thing to do is to practice self-care with those old standbys: Rest, plenty of fluids and over-the-counter medications to reduce symptoms and lower fever. Both the common cold and influenza are caused by viruses, so antibiotics won't help. That said, if you experience any of the following symptoms, it's a good idea to call your doctor; they might indicate you've developed a secondary infection that needs to be treated.

  • A fever over 101.3 F (38.5 C).
  • A fever that lasts five days or comes back after a three-day period.
  • Shortness of breath, wheezing or difficulty breathing.
  • Severe sore throat, headache or sinus pain.
  • Coughing up red, brown or black phlegm. (Contrary to popular belief, yellow or green phlegm doesn't always mean you have a bacterial infection and need antibiotics.) And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don't miss these 50 Unhealthiest Habits on the Planet.
Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor. Read more about Michael