How can I help protect my family from catching colds?

By: Maria Trimarchi

A few simple tips can help you keep your family healthy during cold and flu season. Learn more with staying healthy pictures.
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What do Smart cars and sneezes have in common? The speedometer of a Smart ForTwo goes up to 100 miles per hour (160 kilometers per hour), and that's also about as fast as a sneeze travels. Think about that next time you don't reach for a tissue when you feel a sneeze coming on.

Colds are spread by the droplets that escape when we sneeze and cough, so if someone nearby -- up to about 3 feet away -- sneezes and you inhale those germ-laden droplets, get ready to get sick. Even if you aren't in range of the sneeze, those germs may be living on surfaces nearby, such as banisters and tables. Touch a contaminated surface and then touch your face, and you may have just invited a cold virus into your body.


One of the very best ways to protect yourself and your family from catching a cold isn't to run away to a secluded tropical island -- although that doesn't sound like such a bad idea when you're suffering from a cold in the middle of January. It's regular hand washing.

You should wash your hands often, especially in these circumstances:

  • Preparing or cooking food
  • Eating meals or snacks
  • Touching trash or a trashcan
  • Using the restroom
  • Coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose
  • Coming into contact with someone who's sick
  • Touching telephones, doorknobs, handles, remote controls or other frequently handled items

Some viruses can survive on surfaces for two hours or longer -- rhinoviruses, one of the most common causes of colds, for example, can live for up to three hours on your skin and other objects [source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases]. Hand washing and disinfecting common surfaces of your home can go a long way toward staying healthy.



Keep Your Immune System Strong

In addition to keeping your hands and the surfaces around your home clean, keeping your immune system strong can also help lower your chances of catching a cold this season. If you're not taking care of yourself, listen up: Without a well-balanced diet, daily exercise and a good night's sleep, you're inviting viruses and bacteria to colonize your body.

The body's immune system is always on alert. It's a well-oiled machine and keeps most bad things at bay. It's not perfect, though, and your body can't keep up with the seasonal onslaught of cold viruses if it's run down.


To help keep colds from getting by your immune defenses, eat well-balanced meals that are low in fat and high in antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, as well as selenium and beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. Don't rely on vitamin supplements, although in some instances they can help you meet your daily requirement -- there really is no substitute for good nutrition.

While eating healthy foods is essential to keeping your immune system strong, it's also important to be active and to get plenty of sleep. We know that regular exercise -- 30 minutes a day -- can decrease our risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But what you might not know is that it can also help reduce the number of colds you and your family get this season and make the symptoms of the colds you may come down with less severe.

In a recent study published in the "British Journal of Sports Medicine," researchers found that people who did aerobic exercise at least five days a week had fewer colds than people who exercised only one day a week or not at all. Aerobic exercise improves how our immune system functions, and the better it's functioning, the better able it is to fight off colds and flu.

Similarly, getting plenty of sleep every night is important for every member of the family. How much sleep we need is determined by our age, though naturally it varies from person to person. School-aged kids should get about 10 to 11 hours every night, and teens need between 8.5 and 9.25 hours each night. Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep every night to stay physically and mentally sharp, and that includes fighting off colds. According to a study published in the "Archives of Internal Medicine," adults who don't regularly get at least seven hours of quality sleep increase their risk of catching colds and the flu.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Stopping Germs at Home, Work and School." Feb. 1, 2004. (Nov. 5, 2010)
  • Children, Youth and Women's Health Service. "Kids' Health: Your nose." June 5, 2009. (Nov. 5, 2010)
  • Cohen, Sheldon et al. "Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold." Archives of Internal Medicine. 2009. (Nov. 5, 2010)
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "Common Cold." Dec. 18, 2007. (Nov. 5, 2010)
  • National Sleep Foundation. "How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?" 2009. (Nov. 5, 2010)
  • Nieman, David C. et al. "Upper respiratory tract infection is reduced in physically fit and active adults." British Journal of Sports Medicine. Nov. 1, 2010. (Nov. 4, 2010)
  • New York State Department of Health. "This is How Germs Spread... It's Sickening!" July 2006. (Nov. 5, 2010)
  • TODAY Health. "Stop your sniffling! Tips on preventing a cold." Jan. 14, 2008. (Nov. 4, 2010)
  • U.S. News & World Report Rankings & Reviews. "2010 Smart ForTwo Photos and Videos." 2010. (Nov. 5, 2010)
  • WebMD. "Exercise and the Common Cold." Sept. 25, 2009. (Nov. 5, 2010)
  • Weise, Elizabeth. "The science of hand washing to ward off cold, flu bugs." USA Today. Jan. 21, 2009. (Nov. 5, 2010)