Cold and Flu Prevention

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," said Benjamin Franklin. Old Ben knew what he was talking about. Although we can't thwart every illness, most of the time, doing things to prevent common infections like the cold and flu is better than trying to "cure" them.

Every Day Techniques for Preventing Colds and the Flu

The most important steps you can take to stay healthy and prevent colds and the flu are things you have likely heard over and over again (and deservedly so):

  • Wash Your Hands: Perhaps most importantly, washing your hands correctly and frequently is the best way to prevent the spread of germs. You will keep yourself healthier by washing your hands like you should, and you will also reduce the chances that you pass your germs on to others. However, there is a right way to wash your hands...and chances are you are doing it incorrectly. 
  • Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle: Keeping your body healthy helps keep your immune system healthy. That means you are better able to fight off illnesses when you come into contact with germs. Doing things like eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep, and reducing stress will help ensure that your body is better able to fight off infections.
  • Quit Smoking: If you smoke, even occasionally, stop. Smoking affects your immune system, making you more likely to get sick with common illnesses, like cold and flu. Smoking affects nearly every part of the body in many ways. 
  • Stay Hydrated: Staying well hydrated is more important than you think. Drinking enough water each day keeps your body functioning like it should. Proper hydration is essential for every single body system to work properly. 
  • Use Hand Sanitizer: Soap and water aren't always readily available, but germs are everywhere. If you don't have a way to wash your hands, be sure to use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol to clean your hands thoroughly. This is especially important before you touch your face, eat, or touch someone else. 
  • Don't Share Drinking and Eating Utensils: This should go without saying, but far too many people still share cups, water bottles, utensils, and food. Even if the person you are sharing with isn't visibly sick, they could pass germs on to you that will make you sick. We have all been exposed to different things in our lives. Your friend could be immune to a virus that he has in his body but it could easily make you sick because you haven't had it before. 

Avoiding Illness

Common sense strategies like keeping your distance may help if you know someone is sick, but avoiding the flu can be difficult because it is contagious a full 24 hours before symptoms even appear. So someone who was at work yesterday but stayed home with the flu today was actually spreading the germs around the office before she knew she was sick.

For this reason and many others, it's a good idea to practice the basic precautions listed above. Additionally, making sure you clean frequently touched surfaces in your workspace and office can help cut down on the spread of germs as well.

People rarely think about how many germs could be on their computer keyboard, office telephone, or cell phone, but we touch them so often they are usually covered in bacteria and viruses.

The same goes for surfaces in your home. Cleaning things like door handles, faucets, and remote controls may often be overlooked, but we touch these surfaces so frequently that they can easily be a source of infection. 

Get Vaccinated

There is no good reason to avoid vaccines. Countless studies have shown that they are safe, effective, and save millions of lives each year. Unless you have a valid medical reason not to, get your vaccines each year, including the flu vaccine. It doesn't offer 100 percent protection, but you are far less likely to get seriously ill from the flu if you have been vaccinated against it. You might think the flu is just a mild illness, but it isn't. It kills tens of thousand of people in the United States each year, and hundreds of thousands more are hospitalized because of it. Getting the vaccine can help prevent that. 

Adults may think they don't need any vaccines other than the flu shot, but that isn't necessarily true. If you have any contact with children on a regular basis, you probably need a Tdap, which will protect you from tetanus, pertussis and diphtheria. While those may not sound particularly serious to you, pertussis (commonly called whooping cough) rates are rising, and it can be fatal for young infant. The vaccine against it that you got when you were a child likely isn't providing protection anymore, and you can spread the disease to children if you have it. 

Additionally, if you are in a high risk group or are over age 65, you should get a pneumonia vaccine. It provides protection against the most common types of pneumonia caused by the pneumococcus bacteria. 

If you have a child, get them vaccinated according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and CDC's vaccine schedule. These are safe, effective vaccines that can protect your child from serious and often deadly illnesses. 

Should You Take Supplements?

There is a huge section of the pharmaceutical market that aims to help you avoid colds, the flu, and other illnesses with supplements, herbs, oils, or vitamins. So should you take them? Are they worth the money? The short answer is no. 

Although research is limited, studies have been done on some of the more popular remedies such as vitamin C, echinacea, and elderberry. Unfortunately, science doesn't back the claims made by the manufacturers of these products to support their use for prevention or treatment of common infections. 

Another problem with this section of the market is that it's almost completely unregulated. As long as these products include the disclaimer that they are not intended to treat or prevent a disease, they can be produced with no oversight from any government agency to ensure their quality or safety. In fact, investigations have found that many of these products often don't even contain the ingredients that are listed on their containers, so you are not necessarily taking what you thought you purchased.

There is very little evidence to support the idea that you should take supplements to prevent common illnesses. If you know that your body is deficient of certain vitamins or minerals, taking supplements to increase those levels is probably beneficial, but you should talk to your health care provider first. If it's possible, getting those nutrients through food is better than taking supplements

A Word From Verywell

We can't prevent every single illness, but there are things most of us could be doing more often to protect ourselves and our families. Allowing your body's immune system to do its job is a good thing, but so is doing your part to avoid germs when you can. There's a reasonable middle ground between "living in a bubble" and never washing your hands. If you follow the guidelines listed here, and the copious amounts of other great health and wellness information here at Verywell, you'll be on your way to your healthiest year yet. 


5 Tips: Natural Products for the Flu and Colds: What Does the Science Say? NCCIH. Published February 21, 2012.

Health CO on S and. Smoking and Tobacco Use; Fact Sheet; Health Effects of Cigarette Smoking. Smoking and Tobacco Use. 

Key Facts about Influenza (Flu) | Seasonal Influenza (Flu) | CDC. 

Prevention and Control of Seasonal Influenza with Vaccines | Health Professionals | Seasonal Influenza (Flu).

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