Arm yourself with these expert-approved tips to stay germ-free.

By Stephanie Silk
Updated November 11, 2020
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You know the basic steps to avoid getting sick: Washing your hands often (and for 20 seconds each time), keeping your distance from anyone coughing or sneezing up a storm, and maybe even opting for an elbow bump instead of a handshake during cold and flu season (and when COVID-19 is prevalent in your area).

But your job of protecting yourself against foreign invaders (aka, viruses and bacteria) goes well beyond defensive strategies—you have to be on the offense for your body's health, too. Here, medical experts weigh in on 14 different ways you can avoid getting catching something this fall and winter, from maintaining a healthy lifestyle, to avoiding people until they feel better.

1. Wear a mask

You've heard it for the past few months in response to COVID-19, but wearing a mask in public—especially this year—isn't a bad idea, even for cold and flu season.

Just a quick recap: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends almost all healthy kids and adults wear a mask, except for children under the age of 2 or anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

Those are official recommendations to help stop the spread of COVID-19, but because coronavirus and influenza are spread in very similar ways (through infected respiratory droplets), masks can also come in handy when protecting yourself from the seasonal flu.

2. Wash your hands—often.

A good rule of thumb: Each time you shake someone's hand, wash yours. But don't stop there—you want to lather up your hands as much as possible, Mark Mengel, MD, chair of community and family medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, tells Health.

And we don't mean a quick rinse—to get the most benefit, really need to lather up and rinse well. The CDC's instructions state that you need to first wet your hand with running water, then turn off the faucet and apply some soap. Once you've got soap, scrub your hands together for at least 20 seconds, rinse well, then use a clean towel or air-dry your hands—that's it.

3. Don't touch your face

Your nose and your eyes are the most common places for germs to get into your body, so it's best to avoid touching your face at all (that goes doubly for biting your nails, where germs can live) Dr. Mengel says—at least not until you've washed your hands.

4. Get enough sleep

As if going to bed on time on a normal basis isn't hard enough, you need more Z's when you're feeling under the weather. When you're tired, your body isn't fighting as hard, so Dr. Mengel suggests getting 8–10 hours a night to keep your system in tip-top germ-fighting shape.

5. Get your flu shot—every. single. year.

Yes, really. The CDC recommends everyone six months of age or older get a flu shot every year—ideally by the end of October, around the time flu season starts showing up. While the flu shot is never 100% effective, it can and will greatly reduce the severity of your illness, if you do happen to get the flu, even after getting a flu shot.

It's also worth noting that, contrary to popular belief, you cannot and do not get the flu from the flu shot—though you may have a bit of discomfort after getting a needle in your arm. But it's a small price to pay for sidestepping an illness that kills tens of thousands of people each year.

Here's where to get your flu vaccine for free—even without insurance.

6. Eat enough fruits and vegetables

Is it always fun to eat healthy the majority of the time? Not really, but eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables can help support your immune system, Jeff Robertson, MD, chief medical officer for health insurance company Regence, tells Health.

Keep in mind, that doesn't mean a healthy diet is like an armor shield against viruses and bacteria, but it can give your body an even better chance of fighting off any illnesses it may pick up.

7. Work out regularly

Get those leggings on and exercise, Ann G. Kulze, MD, CEO and founder of Dr. Ann and Just Wellness, tells Health. Working out regularly enhances immune function, she explains, which can help your body fight off any cold or flu germs. But make sure you don't overdo it: Pushing your body past its limits can actually lower your immune system.

Your best bet? Stick to moderate exercise—even starting at 10 minutes a day and working your way up can have great benefits on your health and immunity.

8. Keep your distance from sick people

You knew it would be on this list: The six-feet rule. Keeping your distance from others, especially when they're showing symptoms, feels like common sense, but it applies to more than just staying far enough away from the other people in line at Starbucks; it pertains to keeping a wide berth to sick family and friends too, when possible, Dr. Robertson says.

But if you do have to interact with people who are sick—because we all do eventually—make sure to be vigilant about washing your hands, not touching your face, and wearing a surgical mask, as recommended by the CDC for COVID-19 caregivers.

9. Keep hand sanitizer on hand

You know how washing your hands is good protection against cold and flu germs? Sometimes you just are't near a sink with running water and soap—in those situations, keep sanitizing gel or alcohol-based hand wipes on you at all times.

But, pro-tip: Read the label before you buy, says Dr. Robertson. Look for alcohol-based wipes and gels with at least 60% alcohol, which are more effective at killing germs than those without alcohol.

10. Quit smoking already

Smoking increases the risk of infections by making structural changes in the respiratory tract and decreasing immune response, according to a study of smokers and infection published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2004. In particular, Dr. Mengel says, smoking destroys cilia, the little hairlike fibers inside our noses, which can help increase infection risks.

11. Cut back on alcohol

With most holidays falling during the winter months, people typically end up drinking alcohol a bit more during that time too—but that may not be the best idea during cold and flu (and now COVID-19) season. The truth, per the World Health Organization: "alcohol use, especially heavy use, weakens the immune system and thus reduces the ability to cope with infectious diseases.”

In addition to that, the WHO also explains that heavy use of alcohol also increases the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), one of the more severe complications of COVID-19, and that "[alcohol's]  consumption is likely to increase the health risks if a person becomes infected with the virus.”

As far as how much alcohol you can drink goes, it seems the occasional glass of wine or cocktail won't affect your immune system—but anything past that (especially anything that veers into heavy or binge drinking) could have negative effects on your health.

12. Be wary of sharing anything with others

Double-dippers may be passing germs to those who eat after them, Dr. Mengel says, so maybe opt to steer clear of communal snacks—especially at your company's holiday party, when cold and flu season is in full swing. Also worth ditching: Sharing drinks with anyone else—it's just not worth it.

While you're at it, try to share as little with others as possible. That means bringing your own pen everywhere with you, and avoiding commonly-used surfaces like water fountains and handrails.

13. Ditch your cloth purse

Our purses pick up germs like we do, Joseph Brasco, MD, author of The Great Physicians Rx for Colds and Flu, tells Health, so you could be re-infecting yourself every time you pick up your handbag. His suggestion: Put away your cloth purse during the winter months and carry one made of easier-to-wipe-down vinyl or leather. (Of course, you could always just buy more bags.)

14. Clean your phone once in a while

If you've never given your phone a good clean before, now's the time. Think about it: You carry your phone everywhere, often putting it down on the counter or touching it immediately after pushing an elevator button or touching another commonly-used surface. "Cell phones are one of the dirtiest things we encounter daily," Charles Gerba, PhD, a microbiologist and professor at the University of Arizona, previously told Health.

To fight back against the grime, Gerba recommended cleaning your smartphone at least once a day, or more often if you've been passing it around to your friends, with a few different options, including microfiber cloths, rubbing alcohol and water, or pre-moistened disinfectant wipes.

15. Keep a positive attitude

New research has found that happiness may help you fight off cold and flu germs. Carl Charnetski, MD, professor of psychology at Wilkes University, found that sex, positive thinking, playing with a pet, and other pleasurable behaviors boost your immune system—making it harder for viruses to stick.

16. Keep others healthy too

Let's say, by some awful luck, you do get sick—when you have to cough and sneeze, do so into the crook of your elbow, not into your hands. Since your hands are a common source of germs, doing that will prevent them from spreading, Dr. Kulze says. Also important: Wearing a mask becomes much more important when you are sick to avoid spreading those germs when you cough or sneeze.

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