How Not to Catch Colds & Flu At Home, Work & Travel

‘Tis the season.. for colds, flu, stomach bugs, and everything else that spreads when people come together. But don’t decline holiday parties, skip flights, or start calculating your sick days just yet. Research has uncovered steps you can take to protect yourself and your family, at the office, on planes, and in crowded malls. Follow these tips to get through the holidays without sneezes, tummy aches, or flat-out-in-bed flu.

At Home

Vitamin D

Pop a vitamin D supplement at breakfast. In a Yale medical school study, adults with high blood levels of vitamin D (at least 38 nanograms per milliliter) were 49% less likely to get a cold or other infection of the upper respiratory tract during the fall and winter.

Vitamin D boosts the ability of immune cells lining your lungs to fight off viruses. But without taking a supplement, it’s hard to bring your blood levels into the range that’s likely to increase resistance to viruses, says Michael F. Holick, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine, physiology, and biophysics at Boston University School of Medicine. The government recommended amount is 600 IU a day for most adults. Dr. Holick chaired a task force on the topic for the Endocrine Society, which advised at least 1,500 to 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily. It’s a dose that you can safely take in addition to popping a multivitamin containing D and drinking fortified milk, he says.

Killing the Flu with Bleach

Clean with bleach. Noroviruses, the microbes that cause stomach flu, are notoriously resilient, able to live on almost any hard surface for weeks. They also can survive many common household cleaners — except chlorine bleach, say scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Therefore, beyond common sense prevention measures (no sharing drinking glasses, for example), swab hard surfaces with a chlorine solution.

“Focus on the most likely areas of contamination, such as bathrooms, but also objects everyone touches often, like doorknobs, remotes, light switches, and phones,” advises Christine L. Moe, Ph.D., professor of global health at Emory University in Atlanta.

The bug-killing formula: Add 1/2 cup of chlorine bleach to 1 gallon of water. (Note: Most disinfecting wipes don’t actually contain bleach, and because of that, they won’t knock out noroviruses.)

In addition, launder sheets, towels, and clothes frequently, in hot water and bleach if possible. Noroviruses can live on rugs for weeks, as well. If a family member has thrown up on the carpet, an English study determined that decontamination by steam cleaning appears to be more effective than wet shampooing.

Sleep

Sleep at least seven hours a night. It lowers the odds you’ll wake up with a sore throat, cough, and runny nose. For example, in a study at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, participants who logged fewer than seven hours were nearly three times more likely to come down with a cold than those who got more rest.

Too little sleep triggers as much as a 30% drop in the activity of your immune system’s natural killer cells, according to a study from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

“Killer cells are one of your body’s first defenses against cold and flu viruses — they keep an infection under control until it can be eliminated by more targeted types of immune cells,” explains lead researcher Elinor Fondell, Ph.D.

At Work

Zinc

Keep zinc lozenges in your desk drawer. If you start sucking on these as soon as you feel the first sniffle (that’s why you want the lozenges at hand), your cold will be shorter and less severe, new research has found. But in order to reap the benefit, you need the right formula, which gets a little tricky. In a review study from Finland, lozenges that provide at least 75 mg a day of zinc reduced the length of a cold by up to 42%, while lower doses had no effect on symptoms.

You need a product that effectively releases its zinc ions — the active ingredient, explains study author Harri Hemila, M.D., Ph.D., a professor at the University of Helsinki. “Some lozenges contain ingredients, such as citric acid for flavoring, that bind zinc, making it unavailable,” so read the label he says. To get a high enough dose (based on the milligrams of ions that are actually released), you’ll likely need to suck on 10 lozenges a day. You may want to keep taking them for one to two weeks, the treatment time used in most studies. The main side effect you can expect: a lingering bad taste, which goes away once you stop taking the lozenges.

Prevent The Flu TipsAt Parties

Steer clear of coughers, but not everyone you think might be sick. When a team of researchers from the University of Hong Kong, Harvard University, and the CDC followed more than a thousand men and women during the flu season, the scientists estimated that only 1% to 8% caught the virus from people without identifiable symptoms. So don’t skip holiday parties, but if a guest is coughing or seems feverish or is complaining of a sore throat, cut your conversation short and blow a friendly kiss as you move on.

At The Mall

Soap or Hand Sanitizer?

Suds up before hitting the food court. The sanitizing hand goop in the dispenser at the food court (or in your purse) does a good job of killing bacteria and seasonal viruses like those that cause colds and flu. But it hardly makes a dent against the noroviruses that cause the stomach flu. In studies at Emory, hand sanitizers with 62% or 63% alcohol (the amount in most major brands) killed only a fraction of noroviruses. Even products with alcohol content of up to 95% failed to wipe them all out.

But the Emory research did suggest an effective tactic against these resilient bugs: physically forcing the virus off your hands with the help of running water. Dampen your hands, soap them, and rub together for 20 seconds (about as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice), then rinse with warm running water. Just be sure to use a paper towel to shut off the faucet and to turn the doorknob on the restroom door after washing. That way, your hands will be norovirus-free when you grab hold of your burger, fries, or slice.

When Flying

Moisturizing Nasal Swabs

Keep nasal passages moisturized. An analysis of more than 1,100 airline passengers several years ago found that you are 23 times more likely to catch a cold on a plane than during normal daily life on the ground. Recirculated air in a plane isn’t to blame: A University of California, San Francisco, study found passengers were just as likely to experience cold symptoms if the cabin contained fresh air.

The culprit is probably the low humidity typical of aircraft cabins: It dries out the sticky mucus in your nose, compromising its ability to trap and eliminate viruses, says study coauthor Martin B. Hocking, Ph.D., professor emeritus of environmental chemistry at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Moreover, most cold-causing viruses survive better when humidity is low, increasing the chance that a virus will spread from passenger to passenger.

There’s no proven way to lower your risk when flying, but products that combat the drying out of nasal passages may help, especially during flights lasting more than two hours, says Hocking. Some to try: saline nasal drops, sprays, or gels, or moisturizing nasal swabs. You can also use a neti pot before or after travel. At the very least, they’ll help you breathe more comfortably, preventing nasal crusting, itching, and congestion.

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