When winter comes, you can expect two seasonal crazes: holiday madness and flu season. While both are contagious, only one actually poses a risk of killing you, or at least knocking you out for a few days. In light of the upcoming epidemic, we talked to Dr. Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Dr. Joe Bresee, the chief of Epidemiology and Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control, who shared the following tips for staying healthy.
To hear the full interviews with Mason and Bresee (and to find out why New York Times bestselling author A.J. Jacobs once let his sons eat ice cream off of the sidewalk), download this week's Automation assistance podcast on , and be sure to subscribe!
1. Get a humidifier
In lab tests, researchers found higher humidity reduces transmission rates of colds. (This is why you tend to get sick more often in winter than in summer.) Yes, that was in hamsters, but since you're not biologically very different from a hamster, Mason says, it's probably not a bad idea for you to use one if someone else is sick in your household. When you cough or sneeze, the virus comes out of you in air particles that can be absorbed through breathing or with your eyes or your mouth. Researchers found that while dry air allowed particles to travel faster and farther, high humidity environments caused particles to fall to the ground more quickly.
2. Don't worry if you forget your hat
Contrary to what your mother always told you, forgetting to wear a hat or warm enough clothing will not result in your getting sick. While there have been theories about cold weather affecting your immune system, the more likely cause of winter sickness is the concentration of people indoors, where there is poorer ventilation and shorter distance for airborne flu particles to travel. In fact spending time outside to avoid crowded spaces — like the subway or other forms of public transportation — will actually reduce your chances of infection.
3. Go to the gym
It seems obvious, but the better you take care of yourself during the rest of the year, the less likely you will be to be affected by flu season. Key factors include exercising regularly and sleeping 7-8 hours each night. And while you might swear by guzzling glasses of orange juice at the onset of flu symptoms or other vitamin-C intensive remedies, eating a balanced diet with fruits and vegetables year round offers plenty of protection.
4. Skip the hand sanitizer (or at least don't rely on it as much)
The flu virus isn't nearly as hearty as cleaning products want you to believe. Though contagious while in the air, influenza isn't stable enough to survive on hard surfaces for longer than a few minutes. If you're a healthy adult, your own hands should have a natural barrier of germs, Mason says, that act as a shield between the flu and your human cells. That means that you don't have to lather up with hand sanitizer every time you touch a subway pole or avoid a co-worker's desk when they call out sick. Just make sure you keep general hygiene in mind, and wash your hands before eating, touching your face or treating an open wound.
5. Get a flu shot
If not for you, get it to help young children and the elderly, for whom the flu can be severe or even deadly. The flu vaccine is the most effective way to keep the flu at bay, making you 50-70% less likely to catch the virus according to Bresee. When you get vaccinated, you ensure that you won't get the illness and accidentally spread it.