Going crazy with the hand sanitizer and eating foods that fight colds are just a couple of the secrets to never getting sick.

By Mary Anderson and Mirel Ketchiff
Updated February 27, 2020
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As the temperatures drop lower, the number of your co-workers with the sniffles seems to go higher. Maybe you've accepted your fate as a future casualty to the flu, but if you're determined to stay cough- and cold-free this season, it's time to build your defenses. Cold and flu season peaks through February, meaning you'll want to get on it ASAP.

To help you increase your odds of beating out the germs and learn how to not get sick, steal these cold and flu prevention tips from pros themselves.

How to Avoid Getting Sick

Begin with a Strong Offense

"The flu virus can be passed just by breathing the air of someone who's sick, up to six feet away," says Sandra Fryhofer, M.D., an American Medical Association board member and its liaison to the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Bottom line: Get your flu shot to start your cold and flu prevention strategy on a strong note. "It's never too late," she says. (Related: How Effective Is the Flu Shot This Year?)

Drink Up

"If you get dehydrated, your blood pressure drops, which means your heart is not able to send as much nutrition to your organs," says Dr. Fryhofter. The H2O also helps your skin stay healthier: "It's our number one barrier to keep germs out," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., a SHAPE Brain Trust member and the author of The Superfood Swap. The latest recs say women should aim for 72 ounces of water daily.

Wash, Wipe, Repeat

"Our studies show that using a hand sanitizer at least once a day and disinfecting wipes work well in reducing the spread of viruses on surfaces in the home," says microbiologist Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Arizona. "I recommend that you wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer every time you  and the kids come back from school or the playground." As for what to wipe, Gerba lists shared computers, phones, tablets, and desktops as the areas where researchers find the most cold viruses. (BTW, you'll want to wash these items on the reg.)

Break Out the Humidifier

The mucus membranes in your nose are part of your first line of defense against invaders, but heated rooms can dry them out. "If your nose is dry, try not to touch your mucosal membranes–which is hard to do," says Dr. Fryhofer. "Having a saline nasal gel on hand can help." Tissues too. (Try this easy humidifier trick if you already have a stuffy nose.)

Designate Towels

"Having separate towels for each kid is a good idea to reduce germ sharing," says Gerba. The same goes for grown-ups.

Eat Foods That Fight Colds

When your nose is stuffy, and you can't stop coughing, the best Rx may be...in your kitchen. "Certain foods are high in nutrients that boost your health," explains Kathy McManus, R.D., director of the department of nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

"You should eat a healthy diet to build your immunity rather than supplement with vitamin C and the like," says Dr. Fryhofer. Get plenty of antioxidants by having fruits and greens. (Save the C for the first signs of a cold to perhaps cut your sick time.)

Here, five scientifically-proven foods that fight colds and flu bugs.

  1. Whole grains: They're loaded with zinc, which is vital for maintaining a healthy immune system. Try whole-grain spaghetti with tomato sauce or brown rice with veggies.
  2. Bananas: They contain vitamin B6, which helps your body fight infection. Eat your bananas sliced over whole-grain cereal and double your germ-busting power.
  3. Cayenne Pepper: The active ingredient in the spice, capsaicin, beats congestion by thinning the mucus in your nasal passages so you can breathe freely again. Sprinkle some in soup or on a bean burrito.
  4. Sweet potatoes: They're one of the best sources of beta-carotene (a form of vitamin A), which your body needs to make enough white blood cells to fight off infection. Eat them mashed, baked, or in one of these delicious sweet potato toast recipes.
  5. Garlic: Allicin, one of the active components in freshly crushed garlic, can zap viruses by blocking the enzymes that lead to infection. Use this food that fights colds and flu in a Caesar salad, pesto sauce, or guacamole.

Make Time for a Massage

Besides increasing the production of cells that boost immunity, getting the kinks worked out pushes blood and fluid from around your cells through the lymph nodes. "This helps filter out viruses and bacteria," says Houman Danesh, M.D., director of integrative health service at Mount Sinai Medical Center in NYC. Afterward, be sure to drink lots of water to flush out toxins. (This is one of the many benefits you score from massage.)

Practice Good Oral Hygiene

Caring for your pearly whites may keep bacteria from working their way into your lungs, where they can cause respiratory distress. For example, hospital patients who brushed three times a day reduced their pneumonia risk by up to 50 percent in an Israeli study. Brushing and flossing also prevent your immune system from diverting cold- and flu-fighting resources to combat inflammation in your mouth, says Joseph Banker, D.M.D., a Westfield, NJ-based dentist. (Did you know that there's even pre- and probiotic toothpaste now?)

Schedule More Sweat Sessions

Though heading to a germy gym sounds counterintuitive, working out is a strategy you need to have in your cold and flu prevention plan. Exercising for at least 20 minutes five or more days
 a week may cut your chance of catching a cold by nearly 50 percent, according to a study from Appalachian State University.

Take Countermeasures

Have a kid sick with the flu? "If you're caring for them, you might consider a prophylactic antiviral like Tamiflu," says Dr. Fryhofer of the prescription flu fighter. "And if you have the flu yourself, an antiviral started within 48 hours will help."

Decompress

"Stress hormones and proteins start to wear and tear on the body," says psychologist Vaile Wright, Ph.D., of the American Psychological Association. On top of that, mothers typically report higher levels of stress than fathers. What to do to fend it off? "It's really about getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising, and most importantly, having social activities," says Wright. "Studies show that social support is a huge buffer for stress."

Germ-Fighting Behaviors That Actually Work (and Ones That Don't)

Practice: Wearing a Surgical Mask

Verdict: Works sometimes

Whenever you spot someone wearing a surgical mask at the airport or on the subway, you can't help but think, He's really serious about staying healthy this winter. After all, who'd be willing to look like that much of a nut for so-so cold and flu protection? Turns out, they can protect against 80 percent of airborne germs when worn correctly, research from the International Journal of Infectious Diseases shows. But less than half of the people in the study wore them correctly. Generic ones are often too loose, which defeats the purpose. Plus, not all infectious germs are airborne, and masks will do little against the ones you pick up through contact.

Practice: "Elbow Bumping" Instead of Shaking Hands

Verdict: Works pretty well

You pass along way fewer bacteria when you bump fists than when you shake hands or high five, according to a study in the American Journal of Infection Control. Elbow bumps are probably even safer—if you can handle the weird looks people give you when you offer your elbow in greeting. (P.S. What's Happening In Your Brain When You're Sick with a Cold or the Flu.)

Use a Paper Towel to Open the Restroom Door

Verdict: Barely works

Sure, tons of people do it. But to those who don't fling open the bathroom door with a paper towel over the handle, you look a little paranoid. So is it worth it? Eh. According to Chuck Gerba, Ph.D., a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona, bathroom door handles are actually some of the cleanest surfaces in the bathroom. And what you do with the paper towel after matters—if you wad it up or stuff it in your pocket, you may just wind up picking up whatever bacteria is on it later.

Skip: Holding Your Breath When Someone Coughs or Sneezes

Verdict: Doesn't work

Holding your breath when the person next to you sneezes isn't very noticeable, but it may raise some eyebrows if you start to turn purple in your staff meeting. Unfortunately, by the time you react to the sound of a cough or a sneeze, it may be too late to protect yourself. Researchers from MIT found that droplets from coughs and sneezes can travel up to 200 times farther than previously thought—and it all happens in a fraction of a second. (BTW, you're already covered in germs.)

Practice: Placing Hand Sanitizer Strategically Around the Home/Office So Other People Use It

Verdict: Works pretty well

When tubes of hand sanitizer are displayed more prominently in your home than your family pictures, you might get a few looks. But making the gels more convenient and noticeable may also mean that people use them more when they come into your space, which can cut down on the number of foreign germs you're exposed to. Win. (Here's exactly how to get rid of all. the. germs.)

Practice: Wearing a Scough

Verdict: Works

Think of this as the face mask redux. The Scough (Buy It, $49, amazon.com), which looks like a normal scarf or bandana, will only draw side-eyes if you continue wearing it indoors. And you may want to. It functions like a souped-up surgical mask, courtesy of the activated carbon and silver nanoparticle filter that weeds out and kills infectious microbes.

Skip: Guzzling Vitamin C Drinks

Verdict: Doesn't work

In today's world of green juices, no one will blink an eye when they see you guzzling a glass of bright orange, vitamin C-enriched water. But Canadian researchers recently found that many of these products contain much less vitamin C than they claim and much more sugar. That's a problem since there's evidence that too much sugar can suppress your immune system. What's more, while vitamin C does seem to reduce the frequency of colds in marathon runners and other super active people, the jury's still out on whether they're equally beneficial in regular Joes.

Practice: Putting a Plant on Your Desk

Verdict: Works

Looks cute, slashes stress, and a 2002 study found that workers in offices with plants inside took fewer sick days than those without. Think about choosing a peace lily, which filters most harmful VOCs from the air, according to the famous NASA Clean Air Study.

Practice: Using Hand Sanitizer or Washing Your Hands Frequently

Verdict: Works great

Keep it up. People will only think something's up if you're washing to the point of obsession, and even the CDC agrees it's one of the best things you can do for your health.

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