We rated traditional and word-of-mouth immunity boosters, just in time for peak cold and flu season. Here's what works and what's just hype.

By Mirel Ketchiff
Updated: October 29, 2018

We hear a lot of conflicting information around cold and flu season and how to avoid getting sick. One second, vitamin C is the best way to fight germs. The next, it's no better than poison. (Related: Is It the Flu, a Cold, or Winter Allergies?)

Adding to the confusion: Everyone's family has a different old wives' tale that's been passed on from generation to generation-putting Vicks Vaporub on your feet before bed, eating cloves of raw garlic, dipping your hair in kerosene (okay, we stole that last one from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn).

In an attempt to clear up the confusion, we rated some of the most common cold- and flu-fighting behaviors you see (and practice) this time of year, based both on how well they work and how nuts they make you look.

Wearing a Surgical Mask

Looks crazy, sometimes works

Whenever we spot someone wearing a surgical mask at the airport or on the subway, we 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? The crazy-effective ratio of face masks is way off. 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 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.

"Elbow Bumping" Instead of Shaking Hands

Looks crazy, works pretty well

You pass along way less 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

Looks a little nutty, barely works

Sure, tons of people do it. But to those of us who don't, 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.

Holding Your Breath When Someone Coughs or Sneezes

Looks a little nutty, doesn't work

Not very noticeable, but it may raise some eyebrows if you start to turn purple in your next 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.)

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

Looks borderline nutty, 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. (Try these 6 Ways to Clean Your Place Like a Germ Expert.)

Wearing a Scough

Looks normal in most contexts, works

Think of this as the face mask redux. The Scough (from $29, wearascough.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 nanoparticule filter that weeds out and kills infectious microbes.

Guzzling Vitamin C Drinks

Looks pretty normal, 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.

Putting a Plant on Your Desk

Looks normal, 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.

Using Hand Sanitizer or Washing Your Hands Frequently

Looks normal, 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. (If you do succumb, we've got 10 Home Remedies for Cold and Flu.)

Photo: Agnieszka Marcinska/EyeEm/Getty Images

Bonus: More Tricks That Actually Help You Avoid Getting Sick

1. Make time for 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. (Here are all the mind-body benefits of getting a massage.)

2. 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 prevents 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.

3. Schedule more sweat sessions. 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. (Here's more on how to use exercise to fight off colds and the flu.)

4. Stress less. People who are chronically tense are more likely than calmer folks to develop cold symptoms, even when both groups are exposed to a virus, say researchers from Carnegie Mellon University. Have trouble decompressing? Try yoga. Practicing once or twice 
a week may also increase levels of a hormone (interferon gamma) linked to your body's immune response, Danesh says. (Here are other weird ways your body reacts to stress.)



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