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Cold and Flu
Infectious Diseases
Viruses (biological)

How can you protect yourself and others from viruses and flu?


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July 08, 2013 2:49PM

How to avoid the spread of colds, flu, and other viral infections:


For the flu, get a vaccination (flu shot or jab). See more below in the longer answer.

For other viral infections such as measles, mumps, etc. there are also vaccinations that should be used.

To avoid HIV/AIDS, or other viral sexually transmitted diseases and infections, always use a condom. See below for more.

For a common cold there are no vaccinations, so you'll need to avoid anyone sick, stay at least 6 feet away from them if they are coughing or sneezing. Wash your hands often and follow good health practices at all times, such as exercise, a good diet including many fresh fruits and vegetables and "good fats", such as olive oil, avocado, raw unsalted nuts especially walnuts, get plenty of sleep - 8 hours is usually recommended, drink plenty of water.


If you have cold symptoms, be sure to wash your hands after using tissues when you cough or sneeze or wipe your nose. Wash your hands before you touch someone else or their things so you don't spread the virus (a sub-microscopic particle) to them. If the other person is not as careful as you and you are not in a position to educate them on hygiene, then watch them closely and do not touch things they have used, or if you must, then immediately wash your hands before you touch your face, eyes, mouth, or nose.

Most viruses, like colds and flu, are spread by moving microbe-like particles from one person's mouth, nose, or eyes to those of another person. This is done using our hands much more often than by particles in the air on respiratory droplets from sneezing or coughing, although that is also a mode of transmission.

Shaking hands in a business setting is an almost perfect way to assure that you pass those viruses on or take them on from someone else. Be up front and explain that you are not shaking hands that day because you do not want to share your cold with them. This will improve your business relationship, it will not harm it. It lets the other person know you care about them, you are educated about how germs are spread, you have self-respect, and you are self-confident enough to be open and honest about your actions and reasons for them.

If they, in contrast, offer you their hand when you know they have a cold, you can be similarly honest on why you would rather give a "virtual handshake" or knuckle bump (and you may also be giving a very good lesson to them in the process). If, however, you are concerned about how that will be received, then you might try a "white lie" that you have a strained wrist or finger that makes handshaking painful right then, and you apologize, but are unable to do so. You may, while telling them, make a physical gesture to replace the handshake by touching them on the shoulder or elbow with the opposite hand. Alternately, you might tell them that YOU also have a cold and don't want to add your germs to theirs. In those situations, most people are pleased with the interchange and appreciative of your thoughtfulness and honesty.

So, frequent hand washing is your best protection from viruses. There are also antiseptic sprays that can be used on objects that are frequently touched like telephones, door knobs, and drawer and cabinet handles. Be sure to read the label to confirm the antiseptic product is effective on viruses.

Unless you wear a respirator or other specially made face masks (N95) that can filter the sub-microscopic viruses to prevent your breathing them in, wearing any kind of surgical mask, or other face mask not designed for the purpose (to fit correctly and filter correctly), will not help you avoid breathing viruses that are in the air from coughs or sneezes. Viruses are small enough to pass right through the masks, or can enter around the sides of the mask. However, when worn by someone with the cold or flu symptoms, the masks may prevent them from spreading the virus to you on respiratory droplets from sneezes or coughs since the mask will trap the droplets on the inside of it when they are wearing the mask properly. Or, you could wear a mask to be sure that you do not pass virus to others the same way. Surgical masks are designed to keep the respiratory droplets contained (like covering your mouth with a tissue does), not to prevent you from breathing in sub-microscopic virus particles that are in the air immediately after a cough or sneeze. Additionally, wearing a mask can help you remember when you are "operating on automatic" in public to not touch your face with your hands after you have been touching surfaces and items that so many people have also touched, potentially spreading germs of all kinds.

Do not go to the doctor and demand or expect to be prescribed antibiotics for a common cold or the influenza. These drugs are for bacterial infections, they have no affect on viruses. It is likely only a coincidence if you feel better soon after starting the antibiotics, because people usually wait until after the first four or five days of a cold to go to the doctor. It is within two to three days of that when the virus would have run its course anyway (usually 7-10 days), and so a few days of antibiotics only seems to be doing the trick, and is pure coincidence due to the timing. (Secondary bacterial infections can occur, and may need treatment with antibiotics, so leave the treatment choices to the health care professional rather than telling/asking them to prescribe antibiotics. You should see additional symptoms if bacteria are involved, so be sure to be able to describe for your doctor any secretions, high fever, sputum, pains, shortness of breath, etc.)

When antibiotics are used when not really necessary, they add to the problem of creating antibiotic resistant bacteria that become increasingly deadly and virulent, such as the "flesh eating bacteria" of necrotizing fasciitis. And antibiotics prescribed on demand add unnecessary costs to an already over-priced health care system in the US. Doctors shouldn't, but may, "give in" to your demands or strong requests for the antibiotics and give them to you unnecessarily.

When you are coughing and sneezing with a cold or flu, have tissues handy to cover your mouth and nose and then put the used tissue immediately into a trash container (not in your purse, pocket, up your sleeve, inside your blouse, or on the table or desk). Use them once and then throw them away. If you must cough or sneeze and you don't have tissues available, then cover your face, and especially your mouth and nose, with your elbow by turning your face into the crook of your arm held close to your body. Do not cough or sneeze with your mouth covered by your bare hand, that just loads your hands with a big dose of virus particles to move to a place for someone else to pick them up (unless you know that you can immediately use your hand sanitizer before touching anything). Teach your children and family to follow these same precautions.

If at all possible, stay home instead of going to work, school, or out in public during the first three to five days of your cold or flu symptoms, and try to educate others to do the same. Your body needs rest and fluids to fight the microbes and you don't want to be the "Typhoid Mary" of your office or school. If more of us took this one simple precaution, many microbes causing the communicable diseases would not have the ability to spread throughout the communities and could be stopped with your responsible behavior. This is a time when you, a single individual, can make a difference in the lives of many others.

Use the anti-microbial wipes available at many stores to clean the handles of the shopping cart before using it. If the store does not have these available, carry your own supply of wipes or a bottle of waterless hand sanitizer (containing a minimum of 60% alcohol) with you and use it on the cart and on your hands. Don't forget that after you check out, you often are given a different cart to carry your items to the car, one which you have not cleaned prior to your use. You could use the sanitizer you have with you to clean it before touching it to push out to the car. Most stores have not considered that, and don't place the sanitizing wipes also in that location. Although that should be obvious for the reason just cited (and because the cart will now have been handled by another person, the bagger and/or checker), it is still not done. Use this opportunity to educate the store and request that they put them there for your future use. Or, use the cart and before doing anything else after touching it, use the sanitizer (before even entering your car). Don't forget to have your children use the sanitizer, too, or use baby wipes to clean their hands after trips into public. If you have wipes with you to use, be a good neighbor and clean the handles of the cart after you put the kids in the car, so it will not have germs left from your children that the next child may pick up.

Any time you use a public restroom, after washing your hands and leaving the restroom, use your hand sanitizer. When you touch the door handle to leave the restroom, you pick up more germs. To properly use the sanitizers to kill germs, rub your hands briskly to add friction to the process of getting rid of the virus particles and bacteria (this is also an important part of proper hand washing with soap and water). Continue rubbing your hands together until all of the sanitizer is gone and your hands feel dry.

Some microbiologists have recommended that you should avoid even using the public sinks and rely only on the sanitizer to clean your hands. This would make sense if the sink may seem less clean than your hands. Also, here's a tip from scientists after they monitored the spread of germs in public restrooms with lab tests. They reported that most people avoid using the first stall you find in the public restrooms thinking that it is the most often used, and that it will, therefore have the most germs. Studies have found just the opposite, since we do avoid those stalls, it turns out that they are much less frequently used and the cleaner choice. (You can judge this for yourself by looking at the size of the toilet tissue roll in those first stalls vs. the other stalls and see if it doesn't seem to hold true proven by the amount of tissue in both areas. My non-scientific test of this proved it to be valid information...but, shh, don't tell everyone or it won't hold true very long.)

If you must visit someone at the hospital or clinic, or go to the doctor's office, keep these tips in mind and be careful not to pick up other people's microbes on your hands. If you can not avoid touching the chair arms, door knobs, publicly used pens at the counter, etc., then use the sanitizer as soon as you can afterward and do not touch your face, nose, eyes or mouth in the interim.

Do not go into a hospital unless absolutely necessary. It is not a place to visit sick friends any more, since patients are very ill when hospitalized now, and are not there for lengthy recoveries when friendly visits would have been more appreciated. Friends' visits used to be more appropriate than in this current day and age. You don't want to take microbes in to the vulnerable patients or bring them home with you. If you must be there, use the hand sanitizers often, and before you get into your car if possible. The hospitals have sanitizers located around the building, feel free to utilize these, they are not restricted to use by staff only. Hospitals can harbor deadly viruses, such as the coronavirus, which is responsible for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a rare but deadly condition (they also have extremely virulent and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, fungi, and other disease-producing microbes). Again, avoid transferring those to yourself or others with your hands.

Some viruses also spread through sexual contact and blood, like HIV, for example. Use of condoms or abstinence are the main ways to prevent the spread of the sexually transmitted forms of viruses (and some bacteria and yeasts). Health care professionals use universal precautions when treating patients when blood or other bodily fluids may be encountered, usually vinyl gloves, and sometimes face and eye shields. Blood transfusions are much lower risk than in the past, discuss this with your health care professional if the need arises for blood or blood products. Intravenous drug abusers are extremely at risk with shared needles.

Be sure to eat healthy fats (monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats* are "good fats" and saturated fats and trans fats are the "bad fats"), and five servings of fruits and vegetables each day as part of a good diet. Maintain healthy nutrition with supplements if necessary, as well. Your immune system requires good nutrition for it to function at its best to protect you from viruses that get past your good hygiene and other defenses. Proper rest and sleep, plenty of water, and exercise will also help keep your immune system healthy.

Laugh. This is proven to not only improve mood, but also has been shown to improve your immune system functioning.

*Examples of good fats:

Monosaturated fats include;

  • Olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Sesame oil
  • Avocados
  • Olives
  • Nuts (almonds, peanuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews)
  • Peanut butter

Polyunsaturated fats include;

  • Soybean oil
  • Corn oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Walnuts
  • Sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin seeds
  • Flaxseed
  • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines)
  • Soymilk
  • Tofu