This time of the year, Simmons University biology professor Elizabeth Scott greets her students and colleagues with “namaste” prayer hands. It’s not that she’s an especially dedicated yoga practitioner — she does it because it’s cold and flu season.
“I’ll tell the class, ‘We’re not shaking hands this semester because we don’t want to get sick,’ ” said Scott, also director of the Simmons Center for Health & Hygiene in Home and Community. “They understand because I teach microbiology and talk a lot about hygiene.”
Living with, commuting with, and working near sick people can seem unavoidable in midwinter, but there are many relatively simple things you can do to reduce your risk of having an illness passed along to you.
“A lot of the advice does seem like common sense, but it’s actually the best place to focus,” said Sarah Matathia, a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Everett Family Care. “There are no silver bullets here.”
Get the flu shot
Health experts can’t say it enough: Get the flu shot. Fall is generally considered the best time of the year to get the vaccine, but it’s not too late to get one now if you haven’t done so already. In Massachusetts, flu season typically lasts until April or May, according to Massachusetts Department of Public Health state epidemiologist Catherine Brown.
It is possible to contract the flu if you have been vaccinated, but the vaccination significantly lowers your risk. “The way vaccines work is they expose you to something, usually part of the virus, that causes your body to produce antibodies,” Brown said. “So it’s sort of a safe way to expose you to a disease. Your body will remember it and respond to it.” And while it may make you feel a bit achy in the days after you’ve received it, it cannot infect you with the flu because it does not contain live virus, she added.
The predominant strain in Massachusetts, and most of the country, this year is H1N1, which “tends to impact groups that we generally think are ‘safe’ from the flu, like healthy adults,” Brown added.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that everyone age 6 months and older get a flu vaccine every season. “Every year in Massachusetts, adults and kids die from the flu, so it’s something to be taken seriously,” said Matathia.
Watch what you touch
Here’s a shocking statistic: The average person touches his or her face thousands of times a day, according to Brown.
“Every time you touch your face, you are potentially bringing germs on your hands up near your eyes, nose, or mouth, where the exposure happens,” she said. “To avoid getting sick, try to reduce the number of times you bring your hands up to your face, and also make sure that when you do inadvertently touch your face, your hands are clean.”
Cold and flu viruses can live on hard surfaces — door knobs, the microwave in the office break room, metal poles on the bus or train — for “a matter of hours to days,” said Scott. So avoid touching them unless you have to, or use disinfectant wipes.
On public transportation, wearing gloves might also help. “We know that cold and flu viruses don’t last as long on soft surfaces like fabric, as they do on hard surfaces,” Brown said.
As soon as she gets off of the train, she removes her gloves and applies hand sanitizer.
While generally thought to be “second-best” to proper hand-washing, applying hand sanitizer is a good idea when you can’t get to a sink. Just be sure to look for one with greater than 60 percent alcohol content, Scott recommended. “There have been alternatives on the market with less than that, and they’ve been less effective,” she said.
If someone you’ve been living or working closely with is ill, it’s smart to wipe down shared surfaces such as water taps with a disinfectant product such as Lysol.
Disinfectants can also help kill live viruses on toys shared by multiple children, a water bottle post-gym session, and a smartphone after it has rested on a conference room table.
Wash your hands thoroughly and repeat
Disinfecting or strategically avoiding touching shared surfaces helps, but you could drive yourself mad if you start really thinking about all of the places that could potentially harbor a virus. That’s where frequent hand-washing comes in.
“If you’re washing your hands often, you’re reducing your chances that you’ll get exposed to whatever you might pick up,” Brown said. “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is.”
The best procedure, according to Scott’s Center for Health & Hygiene, involves the following steps: 1. Wet hands. 2. Apply soap, then rub hands together vigorously for at least 20 seconds. 3. Be sure to cleanse under jewelry and between fingers. 4. Rinse hands thoroughly to remove all soap. 5. Turn off water with a paper towel. 6. Dry hands thoroughly, making sure they are completely dry before walking away.
Antibacterial soap and hot water are not necessary, as regular soap and cool running water are thought to work just as well, she added. And the drying aspect, which many people skip, matters because “it’s easier for microbes to survive on wet skin than on dry,” Scott said.
She urges parents to coach children into getting into the hand-washing habit early. Make it a routine, particularly after kids coming home from school or group activities, she suggests.
Promote good hygiene
Of course, part of the responsibility for keeping germs at bay rests on those who are already ill. We can only hope and trust that sick people will wash their hands after coughing into them — or at least before touching our stuff. But you can be proactive by promoting the idea of staying home from work, school, or other group activities while ill.
“Help create a culture in your workplace that when you’re sick, you should stay home and care for yourself, “ Matathia said.
And be assertive, when necessary. As long as you’re not rude about it, there’s nothing wrong with politely moving away from someone who is coughing or sneezing, as viruses can also be spread as far as six feet away through droplets in the air.
“If you’re sick, you need to be really good about covering your cough or sneeze,” Matathia said.
You may also want to avoid sharing food and drinks this time of year. The rise of shareable small plates has taken dining in a communal direction, so it’s now not uncommon to see everyone at a table sticking their forks into a shared dish — and possibly leaving a cold or flu behind. To help avoid spreading illnesses, ask your server for a serving utensil, if it’s not already provided, or divide up the food into individual portions before anyone digs in.
Boost your immune system with a healthy lifestyle
Finally, following the basic tenets of a healthy lifestyle will help keep your immune system strong, Matathia said.
The “pillars” include getting regular exercise and enough sleep, reducing stress, and eating healthy foods. Matathia recommends a plant-based diet that incorporates a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables.
If you smoke, try to quit. “It’s one of the best things you can do to protect your long-term health, as well as reduce your risk for cold and flu,” she added.
Matathia said she hasn’t yet seen convincing evidence that large doses of vitamin C can prevent cold and flu.
It’s important to follow these steps, but try not to obsess about it, Matathia added. “At the end of the day, we still have to live our lives, even if it’s cold and flu season,” she said.Jenna Pelletier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.