Tips: Debugging Colds and Flus

WINTER may not officially arrive this year until Dec. 22, but cold and flu season is already in full swing.

There's good news, though: A few simple actions can greatly reduce your chances of getting a cold or the flu and help prevent your family, friends and coworkers from becoming sick as well, says Joanne C. Langan, Ph.D., R.N., coordinator of clinical resources at the Saint Louis University School of Nursing and a member of the university's Pandemic Response Planning Committee.

"These are common-sense steps everyone should take throughout the year, but it's especially important now that winter's here and cold and flu season is under way," Langan said.

"It's all about respecting yourself in order to stay healthy -- and respecting others so they can be healthy as well," Langan added. "No one wants to get sick or to pass along a cold or the flu to someone else."

Langan offers seven steps she says are crucial to staying well this winter and prevent spreading cold or flu germs to others.

No. 1: Get a flu shot. Unquestionably, this is the most important way to avoid getting the flu and to prevent or contain an outbreak of the illness, which kills hundreds of thousands of people around the world each year. Flu shots are particularly important for people at high risk for serious complications from influenza -- including young children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.

The best time to get vaccinated is October and November, but you can get a flu shot in December and January and still be protected. Flu season can last as late as May.

And contrary to popular belief, there's no chance of getting the flu from a flu shot, Langan said. That's because the viruses in the shot's vaccine are dead, not live.

No. 2: Wash your hands often. A recent study found that regular hand washing with soap and water was more effective than drugs in preventing the spread of respiratory viruses such as the flu. If you can't wash with soap and water, alcohol-based gels and wipes can be used, Langan said. The gel should be rubbed until it's dry.

No. 3: Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Those are "major points of entry" for all kinds of germs, particularly those that cause colds and the flu, Langan said.

No. 4: Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

No. 5: Practice other good health habits. To keep your immune system as strong as possible, get plenty of sleep, eat nutritious food, drink plenty of water and other fluids and learn how to manage your stress.

No. 6: Cover your nose and mouth. If you're about to sneeze or cough, put your hand or a handkerchief over your nose and mouth -- or sneeze or cough into your sleeve. It may prevent those around you from getting sick, Langan said.

No. 7: If you're sick, stay home, particularly if you're running a fever or sneezing or coughing a lot. You'll help prevent others from catching whatever you have.

For more information on preventing the flu, go to www.cdc.gov/flu/toolkit. To learn more about healthy habits and stopping the spread of germs, go to www.cdc.gov/germstopper.

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