Fun fact: A single sneeze can fill an entire room with germs.
Every single winter, I spend at least one day side-eyeing *that* person who comes into work sniffling, sneezing, and spraying their germs everywhere.
I'm going to go out on a limb and guess you don't want to become patient zero for your office's cold or flu outbreak, so I asked Daniel Eiras, MD, assistant professor of infectious diseases at NYU Langone Health, to share some tips on how to keep it 💯 this winter.
First things first: Learn how to wash your hands the right way, and do it often.
When it comes to washing your hands, it is NOT the thought that counts. "Hand washing, to me, is one of the most fundamental ways to break the cycle of transmission of infection," Eiras says. "It's both the easiest and simplest intervention you can do, and one that is infrequently done correctly."
Here's how to do it right: For starters, the water should be warm or hot (although cold water will do in a pinch). You also can't just dangle your palms under the faucet — you have to really rub your hands together and make a lil' friction to get rid of all of the nastiness off. "Make sure you properly clean areas that play hard-to-get, like the spaces in between your fingers and the backs of your hands," Eiras says. In total, you should be washing your hands for 15-20 seconds, which is probably 10 seconds longer than you (read: me) usually do.
Eiras says his hospital has posters like this one posted in all of the bathrooms.
If you're still not grossed out or convinced, remember this:
Anyway, FYI, washing your hands is basically worthless if you don't dry them after.
Bacteria and viruses looooooove wet surfaces, Eiras says, so they get really amped when you decide to ditch the hand dryer or paper towel and go riiiight for that germ-infested bathroom door handle. We all do it, we're all trash, I get it. But seriously, it's so much better to just dry your hands completely after you wash them — and no, wiping them on your pants does not count — and you'll be helping everyone, including you, stay a little healthier.
Beware the nastiness of surfaces in common areas.
Things like doorknobs and light switches are what Eiras calls "high-touch surfaces," aka the communal objects that everyone comes in contact with frequently that are often ground zero for transmitting infections. So if you wipe away a little smear of snot from your nose, rub the gooeyness on your pants, and then, five minutes later, get up and pour coffee from the office coffeemaker, you're definitely sharing the wealth. So if you're feeling not-so Raven at work, be sure to either avoid touching these surfaces, or clean your hands thoroughly before coming in contact with them.
And if you're not sick, you should still wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after using high-touch surfaces. You don't have to wash your hands every time, Eiras says, because that's drying AF and bordering on obsessive, but be mindful of what you're touching. Make Clorox wipes your friend, keep some hand sanitizer nearby, and sick-shame anyone who comes into work feeling like shit. (JK, don't do that last one.)
That means you have to wash your hands after you blow your nose, people!!!!!
I know you're thinking, I blow my nose into a tissue. Doesn't the tissue negate the need for hand-washing? I know this because that's what I thought until I talked to Eiras. But, surprise! Tissues are not the snot-proof shields we want them to be, and lots of germs sneak through them.
Load up on hand sanitizer. Bathe in it, as far as I'm concerned.
Eiras is a big fan of hand sanitizer, largely because it makes it so much easier to clean your hands every time they come in contact with something gnarly. "Alcohol-based sanitizers are as effective as hand-washing," he says. "People in general do it better than washing hands, because you rub until it’s no longer wet or sticky, which is a lot better than leaving bathroom with wet hands."
But know that hand sanitizer won't protect you from everything.
According to Eiras, given the choice, soap and water is always preferable to hand sanitizer because even the best sanitizers (ones that are 62–70% ethyl alcohol) don't catch everything. "If there's a norovirus outbreak at work, you have to use soap and water," Eiras says. "Sanitizer misses a lot of gastrointestinal infections, so you have to be careful about those." Tl;dr: if you don't want to do any Excorcist-style puking, ditch the hand sanitizer and wash your hands with soap and water.
If you need to sneeze but don't have a tissue handy, your elbow will do just fine.
Literally anything is better than not covering your nose and mouth during a sneeze, tbh. Sneezing into your elbow seems kinda nasty, but it's actually a pretty good idea because "you’re generally not touching things with your elbow like you would with your hands, so the risk of infecting other people is low," Eiras says.
If you're coughing and/or sneezing and have the option to stay home*...stay the fuck home.
Yes, you can be sick without coughing and sneezing, but *sounds sirens* coughing at sneezing at work is like handing your coworkers A ONE-WAY TICKET TO SICKVILLE. "Those are most troublesome for spreading a virus," Eiras says. "They expel potentially infectious droplets into the environment that can travel several feet in a matter of seconds. In fact, you could probably fill an entire room with the droplets from one sneeze." And what happens to those droplets? They survive 'n thrive. Any droplets that land on, say, a table, a computer keyboard, or a mouse can contain viruses that live on for DAYS. DAYS!!! I've owned houseplants that haven't lived that long. Seriously, if your work has a decent PTO/sick leave policy, remind yourself that there is no Medal of Honor for coming into work as a human incubus of disease. So please, if you've got a nasty cough or a lot of phlegmy sneezes, ensconce yourself in the sanctity of your own germ palace.
*More than 37 million Americans do not have paid sick leave and can't stay home. This is a political issue that's mostly being fought at the state level, and it's something we should all care about!!!
And if you can't stay home from work, isolate yourself as much as you possibly can.
According to Eiras, a cold can last for 1-2 weeks, and a flu for potentially longer. Even the most lenient bosses might not be down with you sitting at home surrounded by tissues for that long, so if/when you have to come into work when you're sick, stay away from others. Holing up in an unused office, finding a desk that's far from other people, or looking for a small conference room you can set up your stuff in can go a long way in protecting others from your hazardous breath. And when you do have to leave your self-imposed quarantine, Eiras says you need to "make sure to wash your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer whenever you’ve touched anything, including your face." (Also, please give the space you were in a good cleaning with a Clorox wipe!!!)
Don't expect a face mask to magically shield everyone from your germies.
As far as face masks go, Eiras says their effectiveness is questionable, but that could be because most people don't end up keeping them on all day. "It’s not clear that if you have a cold that you’re not going to spread it just by putting a mask on," he says, but added that when employees in his hospital come in to work after being sick, they're asked to wear a mask. So, make of that what you will.
Don't just gulp down a bunch of medication willy-nilly.
"You can do some things for yourself that can potentially limit the severity of your illness and the amount of time you are infectious," Eiras says. "There's no treatment for a cold, but if you have the flu, you can get tested for it at urgent care or your doctor and take an antiviral that can help, especially if you take it early."
For strep throat and certain forms of walking pneumonia, take antibiotics as prescribed.
And if you have a cold, stay hydrated.
Eiras says the best thing you can do for a cold is get enough sleep and rest and drink a lot of fluids. Like, drink more fluids than you ever have. Drink so many fluids that you start to hate the word "fluid." Basically, if your pee is glass-clear, then you're probably doing it right.
And one last thing: Please, I beg of you, get a damn flu shot if you haven't already.
Even if you say, "Whatever, woman, you don't run my life!!!!" to everything else in this post, please don't disregard getting a flu shot.
"Outside of all of these other preventative measures like washing your hands, it’s the best way to prevent infections," Eiras says. Not only do you definitely not want to get the flu, but you don't want to run the risk of getting other people sick, too. Some people — babies, pregnant people, elderly folks, people with other serious health conditions, and people with allergies to the vaccine —are incredibly vulnerable to the flu, and if you don't get vaccinated and then get sick, you're in grave danger of spreading it. Put simply, the more people who get vaccinated in a community (or office), the less the flu can spread.
"There's very, very little downside to getting the shot," Eiras adds. "Even if you happen to get the the flu after the shot, the vaccine can decrease the severity very significantly. I can’t stress it enough. It saves lives, it decreases infections, and makes people healthier. Everyone above the age of six months should get it and get it right now."
PS: You can't even use the "but I don't even know where to get one near me" excuse, because the CDC has a super easy flu shot finder tool. You're welcome!
Be careful this winter, y'all.