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

By Stephanie Silk
January 15, 2009

Are you avoiding your co-worker with that hacking cough, cold, or flu in the cubicle next to you? Do you open every door knob with your elbow? It's time to get a grip—without opening yourself up to getting sick. Here, medical experts weigh in on 13 different ways you can avoid getting catching something this cold and flu season. Don't say we didn't warn you (or give you the opportunity to stay healthy).

1. Wash your hands as much as you possibly can.

A good rule of thumb (no pun intended)? 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, says Mark Mengel, MD, chair of community and family medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. Running lots of water over your hands will dilute any germs and send them down the drain, and soap will help slough off the germs quicker. 

2. 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) says Dr. Mengel—at least not until you've washed your hands.

RELATED: This Is How Long Cold and Flu Germs Can Live on Surfaces Like Doorknobs and Subway Poles

3. Get enough sleep.

As if going to bed on time on a normal basis isn't hard enough, you need more zz'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.

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

Yes, really. (No, it will not make you sick). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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. Here's where to get your flu vaccine for free.

5. 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, says Jeff Robertson, MD, chief medical officer for health insurance company Regence. That means it can give your body an even better chance of fighting off the flu.

RELATED: 6 Foods to Eat to Help Prevent the Flu

6. Work out regularly.

Get those sweats on and exercise, says Ann G. Kulze, MD, CEO and founder of Dr. Ann and Just Wellness. Working out regularly enhances immune function, she explains, which can help your body fight off any cold or flu germs. 

7. Keep your distance from sick people.

This one might seem obvious, but it applies to more than just keeping a safe distance from sick strangers and colleagues—it pertains to keeping a wide berth to sick family and friends too, when possible, says Dr. Robertson. And if you do have to interact with people who are sick, make sure to be vigilant about washing your hands and not touching your face. 

8. 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, which are more effective at killing germs than those without alcohol. 

RELATED: When It's Safe to Use Hand Sanitizer—and When You Absolutely Need to Find Soap and Water

9. 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.

10. Be wary of sharing food 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. 

11. Buy a leather bag, and ditch your cloth purse.

Our purses pick up germs like we do, according to Joseph Brasco, MD, author of The Great Physicians Rx for Colds and Flu, 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.)

12. Try to smile once in a while. 

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. 

13. Think of ways to 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.

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