It can be tough to stay well when you're in close quarters with someone battling coughs, fevers, and sniffles. Germs spread more easily in tight spaces and can cause colds and the flu to hang around your house for longer.
You can protect yourself, though, if you know the right and wrong ways to deal with someone at home who’s under the weather. Give these simple strategies a try.
Wash your hands often. It's the single best way to avoid a cold. Once germs are on your hands, it's easy for them to get into your body when you touch your eyes or mouth. Wash before you eat or prepare food and after you use the bathroom or change a diaper. If you're taking care of someone who's sick, wash your hands before and after being with them.
You have to do better than a quick rinse under the faucet. Rub your hands together with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (enough for two rounds of singing “Happy Birthday”). Don’t forget to wash between your fingers and under your nails. And remember to keep your hands away from your nose, mouth, and face.
Hand sanitizer is the next best thing if you can't get to a sink. Keep a small bottle with you -- at work, in your car, and in your purse. Buy one with at least 60% alcohol. Rub it all over your hands until they're dry.
Sanitize surfaces. Stopping the spread of germs means making sure you clean and disinfect hard surfaces such as countertops, tables, refrigerator handles, doorknobs, and faucets. And don't forget TV remotes, computers, laptops, and phones, too. Some germs can live in these spots for up to 24 hours, so make sure you clean with a disinfectant or disinfecting wipes, or quarter-cup of bleach mixed in 1 gallon of water.
Use disposables. Cold and flu germs can cling to fabric. So when someone in your house is sick, replace cloth hand towels and dishrags with paper towels. Remove water glasses and add paper cups in the bathroom, too.
Steer clear when you can. It can be tough to completely avoid a sick person in your house, especially if you're the one taking care of them. But sometimes the best thing you can do to stay well is to keep your distance. If you can, give the sick person their own room for sleeping and relaxing. Stock it with the items they’ll need, like tissues, a trash can, medicine, and bottles of water. And limit their guest list. The only person who should go in and out of the sick room is the person taking care of them.
Pamper your immune system. Your body does a remarkable job protecting you from illnesses most of the time, especially when you keep your immune system in tip-top shape. Keep eating lots of fruits and veggies. Look for foods rich in vitamin A (sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach), vitamin C (citrus fruits), and vitamin E (almonds, sunflower seeds). Lean protein (seafood, eggs, beans) can also help boost your body’s defenses. Make sure you get plenty of rest. Daily exercise, keeping stress in check, and limiting alcohol also help.
What about loading up on vitamin C or other products that claim to boost immunity? There’s not much evidence that they work. For example, vitamin C supplements might make a cold shorter and milder after you get one, but they can’t keep you from getting sick.
Get a flu shot. It’s one of the surest ways to stay well. The vaccine is different every year, so make sure yours is up to date. For the best protection, get the flu vaccine when it comes out each year in October or November. But even later is better than not at all. It takes 2 weeks for the flu vaccine to take effect, and flu season can last into March or April. You should also get a COVID-19 vaccine and boosters as recommended by the CDC.
Wear a mask. Masks are an effective way to help stop the spread of COVID-19 as well as other viruses and germs. You should wear a mask that fits well and is comfortable for you.
When to wear a mask:
- If you're 2 years old or older and in an area with a high COVID-19 Community Level
- If you're sick and need to be around others or are caring for someone who has COVID-19
- If you have a greater risk for serious illness or spend time with someone at higher risk, talk to your doctor about wearing one at medium COVID-19 Community Levels.
If you're the one feeling under the weather:
- Cough or sneeze into your elbow instead of your hands.
- Wash your hands after you touch your mouth and nose, even with a tissue.
- Finish any medicine that your doctor prescribes.
- Try to steer clear of healthy people in your house, especially if someone has a weak immune system that makes them more likely to get sick.
- Don’t share food or drinks, cups, utensils, or towels with people who are sick.
- Don’t forget to throw out toothbrushes after everyone gets well. Keep a sick person’s toothbrush separate from the rest of your family’s. They can be a breeding ground for germs.
- Don’t let anyone share pillows and blankets with the sick person. They should have their own bedding in their own space in the house. Then, once they are better, wash everything they used.
- Don’t let sick and well children share toys. If it happens, make sure to disinfect the toys in between play times.
- Don’t indulge in bad habits like biting your nails, rubbing your eyes, or chewing on pencils. They make it easy for germs to hitch a ride into your body. Remind children to keep their hands -- and any other not-so-clean objects -- out of their mouths, noses, and eyes.
Photo Credit: Steve Mason / Getty Images
CDC: “Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine,” “The flu: Caring for Someone Sick at Home,” "An Ounce of Prevention Keeps the Germs Away," "Stopping the Spread of Germs at Home, Work & School," "Handwashing: Clean Hands Save Lives," "Put Your Hands Together," "Cover Your Cough," "What You Need to Know About Variants."
New York State Department of Health: “When Someone at Home Has the Flu.”
Harvard Health: “How to Boost Your Immune System.”
NIH Office of Dietary Supplements: “Vitamin C.”
FamilyDoctor.org: "Preventing the Flu," "Colds and Flu: Prevention."