Come the flu season and it's definitely not an overstatement to say that we're hearing sneezes and coughs everywhere we go -- whether it's at work or at the mall. Fortunately, there are ways to avoid getting sick -- and to feel better if you do fall ill. Here's how:
1. Get the shot
You can help prevent the flu by getting the flu vaccine every year. The best time to get the vaccine is just before the start of the flu season. The good news is that almost anyone over 6 months old can have the flu vaccine, which means higher-risk groups like young children as well as the elderly are encouraged to get the shot. Even if you're unlucky enough to catch the flu after you've been vaccinated, your symptoms will be milder.
2. Sneeze right
When you cough or sneeze, you spread oodles of germs by covering your mouth or nose with your palm and then touching other surfaces, says Warren McDougle, epidemiology program manager for the Hillsborough County Department of Health in Tampa, Fla. Instead of using your hands, cough or sneeze into the inside of your elbow (as if you were Dracula hiding behind his cape). If you do sneeze into your hands, prevent a cold by washing them immediately.
3. Wipe out germs
In your home and office, use disinfecting wipes to clean objects you and others use often. That includes doorknobs, telephones, remote controls and computer keypads. Itís especially important to keep these surfaces clean when someone who uses that area is sick, says McDougle.
4. Scrub up
Another way to help prevent a cold is to wash hands before you eat, as well as after using the restroom or touching surfaces. Use warm water and soap and rub briskly for about 20 to 30 seconds (or as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday"). "It's the friction along with the soap and water that remove germs," says McDougle.
5. Use sanitizer sparingly
Although hand sanitizer is convenient, it's not a foolproof substitute for hand-washing, says McDougle. After repeated use, it creates a residue on your hands, making it ineffective. Try not to use it more than six times in a row.
6. Drink up
If you do get sidelined by a cold, drink plenty of fluids to replenish your system and make breathing through your nose easier, advises James Orlowski, M.D., chief of pediatrics at University Community Hospital in Tampa, Fla. This includes chicken soup, which has been shown by some studies to help people feel better quicker. "No one knows why, and no one knows whether it needs to be homemade or canned," he says.
7. Be wary of supplements
Zinc, echinacea and vitamin C all have followers who swear by their healing properties -- but science may prove them wrong. Two studies conducted by the same researcher who found zinc shortened the course of the common cold later found it had no benefit. Zinc nasal sprays have also been associated with a permanent loss of smell, says Orlowski. The jury is out on vitamin C; some research shows it helps, while other studies have found it doesn't. As for echinacea, researchers have found it has no effect on colds at all.
8. Get some zzzs
If you're sick, bed rest is the best remedy, says Orlowski. Sleep allows the body to devote its energies to healing and fighting infection. Don't try to tough it out at the office: "If you're sick, stay home," he says. "Don't go to work or school and expose others."