Cold and Flu Prevention
Why we get sick and how to stay healthy during cold and flu season.
Q. Can flying on an airplane make you sick?
A. "Yes," says Bruce Polsky, chief of the division of infectious diseases at St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital Center, in New York City, "especially if you’re sitting within six feet of someone who is sneezing, coughing, and spewing germs into the dry air." Because the air is recirculated in the close quarters of the plane’s cabin, certain kinds of germs may stay suspended, and you can end up breathing them in. Drink lots of water, and consider using a saline nasal spray to keep your mucous membranes moist.
Q. Can your toothbrush or lipstick reinfect you after you’ve been sick?
A. It’s not likely. “If you’ve just come out of a cold, don’t toss it,” says Neil Schachter, a professor of pulmonary and critical care at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. “Once you’ve had a particular viral illness, you’re protected from it.”
Q. Can you get sick from touching a doorknob?
A. Yes. Germs last longer than you think. “Viruses can survive up to three days on surfaces and inanimate objects,” says Chuck Gerba, a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. That’s why it’s a good idea to carry your own pen. To reduce the number of germs, be sure to zap hot spots (the phone, for instance) regularly at home and at work with a disinfecting product, such as Clorox Disinfecting Wipes.
Q. Can you catch the same cold or flu twice in the same season?
A. You can’t get exactly the same one, as your body will have developed antibodies to it. But “cold and flu viruses mutate, so there are subtly different forms of the virus,” says Caroline Rudnick, an assistant professor of community and family medicine at St. Louis University. “Getting one type doesn’t protect you from another.” Even if you’ve had the flu vaccine, if a different strain of the flu virus is going around, you could catch it.
Q. Is it safe to exercise with a cold?
A. "Do a 'neck check': If your symptoms are in or above your neck―say, if you have a stuffy nose, a headache, and a mildly sore throat and you’re sneezing―it’s fine to work out," Schachter says. "But if your symptoms extend below the neck―if you have a cough, a fever, body aches, or chills―take a break from exercising until you feel better."
Q. Can going outside with wet hair in the winter make you sick?
A. Exposure to an infection, not cold temperatures, can make you sick. “But if your body gets cold, it could get physically stressed because it’s using a lot of energy to try to stay warm, and you might be more likely to catch an infection,” Rudnick explains. To avoid stressing your body unnecessarily, dry your hair before going out in the cold, or wear a hat.