Barring the sudden mutation of bird flu into Super Death Flu, most winter illnesses aren’t life-threatening (except to the elderly and the very young). Catching whatever bug is going around will usually just slow you down for a couple days, making you feel miserable. They’re more inconvenient than anything else. Still, American businesses lose millions of working hours to employee sickness, most of it due not to missed work days (Americans don’t use sick days) but rather to lowered productivity due to employees coming in sick.
There’s no sure-fire way to make sure you don’t catch cold or flu, but there are a few things you can do to increase your odds. And if you do get sick, there are also a couple things you ought to keep in mind to avoid spreading your illness to your friends, co-workers, and loved ones.
First of all, forget the anti-bacterial soap. Anti-bacterial soap offers no particular advantage over soap alone — it’s the washing that counts, regardless of the soap. Even if anti-bacterial additives worked, though, they still wouldn’t help much, since the main threat in flu season is viruses, not bacteria. Meanwhile, the introduction of anti-bacterial substances into our hand soap, laundry detergent, dish soap, hand lotions, toothbrushes, and just about everything else contributes to the evolution of resistant strains of bacteria — in the long run, posing a greater threat than the risk of normal household bacteria pose today. These products should only be used in clinical conditions — hospitals, doctor’s offices, labs — to minimize the rate of resistance development.
On the other hand, use hand sanitizer. The active ingredient in most hand sanitizers is alcohol, not specialized anti-bacterial agents. If you cannot wash your hands, and there is no visible dirt on your hands, hand sanitizer is a reasonable second line of defense. Use it before you eat or prepare food, of course (but only if you cannot wash), but also after using public transportation, visiting the bank teller window (or anywhere else where people put their hands a lot), using a shopping cart, or selecting meat at the supermarket.
Better yet, wash your hands. But do it right, instead of the way you wash your hands now. A good hand-washing is more effective than hand sanitizer, regardless of the kind of soap you use. The problem is, most people don’t wash long enough to get a good hand-washing. You should wash your hands for at least 20 seconds to assure real cleanliness. How long is that? About as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” two times through (you don’t have to sing out loud if you don’t want to, though).
Avoid the buffet. Yes, buffets are amazing — bountiful cornucopias of delights. They are also among the least sanitary ways to serve food. Almost every customer before you has touched the tongs, spoon, or spatula the food is served with, introducing all manner of bacteria and viruses into the dish (I said “almost” every customer — the rest just stuck their hands right in). Food is rarely kept hot enough to kill any germs that get on or in it; generally, buffet food is kept at a temperature well within the comfort zone of food poisoning bacteria. Yum!
If you do get sick, stay home. A lot of people go into work sick, feeling that they have too much on their plates to miss a day. Those people are profoundly disturbed, and should see a therapist or life coach immediately. In any case, the reality is that more productivity is lost due to sick workers than to absent workers. You can do the math yourself: if you go into work and work at 50% effectiveness for five days, instead of staying home for two days and coming in fully recovered the third, you’ve lost half a day’s work (50% + 50% + 50% + 50% + 50% = 250% vs. 0% + 0% + 100% + 100% + 100% = 300%). On top of that, you risk infecting your co-workers, reducing their productivity as well, and costing your company a heck of a lot more than your two days off.
If you can’t avoid people, at least cough properly. Cough into your sleeves, not your hands. When you cough, cover your mouth with your elbow or shoulder, not your hands. I know, it seems gross, all those germs just lingering around in your sleeve, but better in your shirt (which you rarely touch anyone or anything with) than on your hands (which you touch everything with). Bacteria and viruses will quickly die in the fabric of your shirt or blouse, while the oils and warmth of your hands will keep them alive for hours. Bottom line: you won’t be spreading germs everywhere you go.
Following the advice above will not completely eliminate the risk of illness, but it will certainly reduce your risks and, if you do get sick reduce the threat you pose to others. Certainly a healthy diet and lifestyle can help, as can a round of flu shots, but neither of those is very useful if you don’t minimize your exposure to the germs that cause illness. Unfortunately, the trend over the last few years has been to put our trust in virtually useless anti-bacterial soaps, leading us down the wrong path entirely. Good hand-washing habits, being careful about where you put your hands in the first place, and common courtesy are far more effective.