10 Expert Tips Doctors Use for Surviving Cold & Flu Season
Fight off the sniffles with these tips—straight from the people surrounded by germs 24/7.
'Tis the season for coughs and sniffles galore. It often seems like getting sick this time of year is an unavoidable reality, but here's the thing—it doesn't have to be.
You know all the standard ways of staying healthy (like washing your hands and getting a flu shot), plus all the things you can do if you do get sick (hello, chicken soup), but how do doctors survive cold and flu season? After all, they're surrounded by even more germs than most people.
Ahead, top docs share what they do to prevent getting sick and what actions they take when they do (inevitably) get sick.
1. Maximize hand-washing time.
Yes, hand washing is obviously super important to prevent getting sick, but a quick rinse under the water won't cut it. It's essential to not only use soap (insert obligatory 'duh!' here) but also to wash your hands for long enough. Forget singing in the shower—try singing while you wash your hands to extend the time under soap and water. Take a cue from Niket Sonpal, M.D., a New York-based internist, gastroenterologist and adjunct professor at Touro College, who sings the chorus of "Hit the Road Jack" every time he suds up. (Note: While hand sanitizer is good in a pinch, it doesn't replace a proper hand wash with soap and water.)
2. Strip down as soon as you get home.
"Shoes and coats breathe germs, so I remove them as soon as I walk into my house," says Jen Caudle, M.D., a family physician and spokesperson for Mucinex. It’s a good idea to completely change your outfit when you get home—especially if you’ve been in super public (aka germy) spots like the subway or a crowded restaurant—but at the very least, removing your shoes and coat ASAP is a good idea. On a similar note, if you're having a party, hang everyone's coats in the closet, rather than tossing them on the bed. "Coats are little Petri dishes and should never go on the bed," she adds.
3. BYO pen.
This is particularly important in settings like hospitals and doctor's offices (where you inevitably have to sign lots of forms). Pens can be a veritable breeding ground of bacteria. "I always carry my own pens to minimize the chances of using one that has a virus on the surface," says Dr. Sonpal.
4. Wipe down your steering wheel.
You're probably touching your steering wheels numerous times a day, swiping it with whatever you touched throughout the day. Dr. Caudle says she keeps disinfectant wipes in her car at all times and cleans off the wheel before every drive. (File that under: Why didn't we think of that?)
5. Go for the fist bump.
The greeting isn't just for frat bros. Internist Arielle Levitan, M.D., co-founder of Vous Vitamin, goes in for a fist bump instead of shaking hands. This minimizes the amount of skin-to-skin contact and how much bacteria gets on your fingertips, always a good thing given people tend to touch their face, mouth, and eyes without even thinking, introducing germs directly into their body.
6. Learn how to de-germify.
If you've been in close contact with someone who's coughing and sneezing, don't stress: "You have between two to five hours to rid your body of surface viruses after you've been around someone who's sick," says Richard Firshein, D.O. a leading expert in integrative and precision-based medicine and founder of the Firshein Center in New York City. Follow his lead: Do a nasal rinse (either with a Netti pot or nasal spray) to rinse out any germs hanging out in your sinuses and nasal cavity, then take a shower and change into clean clothes. (Also read: How to Sneeze Without Being a Jerk)
7. Use tissues on public buttons, knobs, etc.
Dr. Sonpal says he covers his fingers with a tissue before pressing any buttons in an elevator. "This might seem a bit extra, but elevators are confined spaces with less air circulation than a normal room and viruses can linger there," he says. "Using tissues to press the buttons can add an extra layer of protection." (That doesn't mean you shouldn't also be washing your hands regularly, BTW.) Another easy, disposable option? Cover your fingers with a Post-It before pushing the buttons. Don't use your sleeves as a stand-in, though; if you do get germs on them, they can then easily be transported onto your body or face.
8. Gargle away a sore throat.
Your grandma may have had you gargle with warm salt water to knock out a sore throat when you were a kid, and that can, in fact, actually help, say experts. Firshein says he puts this into practice when he feels a sore throat coming on but also alternates gargling with room temperature echinacea tea; the herb is a powerful immunity booster. (Gargling is just one of many natural remedies for a sore throat.)
9. Hide your toothbrush.
If you have a family member that's sick, make sure to stash your toothbrush inside a medicine cabinet, rather than leaving it out where it's exposed to germs. This is an excellent way to prevent bacteria from getting on it when people cough or sneeze in the bathroom, says Dr. Sonpal. (Or, where—gasp!—their toothbrush may bump up against yours.) While on the topic of toothbrushes, make sure to replace yours after you've been sick, to avoid the risk of reinfection. (FTR, this is exactly how long the common cold is contagious.)
10. Get moving.
It can be tempting to skip a workout when you're feeling crummy, but it may be a good idea to push through and do it anyway. Research shows that, just after a workout, immune cells actually go hunting in your body for pathogens. Meaning, moderate exercise may help prevent you from getting sick and help you fight something that's already in your body. The catch: Don't go too hard.
"As long as I don't have a fever or feel overly fatigued, I still try to exercise in moderation," says Dr. Levitan. "Sometimes the resulting endorphins can be helpful in boosting your immune response."
That said, you obviously don't want to exhaust yourself if you're super sick, because it can put extra stress your body to recover when it's already fighting off a ton of germs. (More here: Can You Work Out While Sick?) A good rule of thumb? If your symptoms are confined to just your head (sniffles, congestion, headache), do something low-key, but if you're feeling it in the rest of your body (aches, chills, etc.) take a pass.