Q: I work in an office filled with germs. We all use the same coffeemaker in the break room, the same water cooler next to the copy machine, and breathe the same stale office air. I don’t have my own office; all I’ve got is a cubicle, and a small one at that. Got any tips on how I can prevent getting sick at work this fall? Especially when the guy next to me won’t stop coughing?

A: Ugh. I know exactly how you feel. I spent the better part of my time working in an office trying to avoid anyone with a cold. That’s because for most of my corporate life (who am I kidding, I worked in a small nonprofit) I was pregnant and trying to avoid getting sick like the plague. There was one guy who always came to work fall, winter or spring, with a nasty cough and cold, and to make matters worse, he covered his mouth with his hands! The same hands he used to push buttons on the copy machine or the microwave! Ugh. My mother taught me to cover my mouth with the inside of my elbow. Didn’t yours?

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about keeping sick people out of work, since most offices don’t have the same strict “no-sickies” policy that elementary schools do, but there are steps you can take to minimize your risk of getting sick. And as the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Wash your hands. Pharmacists, doctors, nurses — they all wash their hands dozens of times a day, and you should too. Washing your hands with a little soap and water is probably the single most effective way to prevent infection. A little hand sanitizer will do in a pinch, but it’s not better than good ol’ soap and water. Think you got washing your hands down pat? Check out our hand-washing primer to make sure you’re washing effectively.

Avoid the sickies when you can.If you do see someone sick, try to stay away. Or at least be wary around them. This means washing your hands after shaking theirs, and possibly pressing copy machine buttons with your knuckles instead of your fingers after they’ve used it. It may seem excessive, but you’ll be happy when you don’t catch the cold that’s been going around the accounting department. 


Keep yourself healthy. That means eating a balanced diet and getting enough shuteye every night. If you’re not taking care of your body, your immune system is not as strong as it needs to be to fight off infection, and in turn you are more susceptible to illness.

Exercise. Try to get in at least 30 minutes a day if you can. If you’re one of those people who can barely find time to take a leisurely shower, let alone spend 30 minutes on the treadmill, why not spend your lunch break taking a brisk walk around the office? Or park in the back in the office parking lot, and take the stairs when you can. Squeeze in bits of cardio when you can to keep your body in shape and ward off sickness. A healthy body is a strong body is a happy body.


Hopefully, these tips will keep you from getting sick from someone at the office this season, but know that despite your best efforts, you may still end up ill. Unfortunately (much to my dismay), we can’t control everything. Chin up though, a day or two at home (because you’re smart enough to stay at home when you’re sick) means you can catch up on that last season of “Desperate Housewives” you’ve been meaning to watch. See? Maybe getting sick isn’t so bad after all.

-- Chanie

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Man peering over cubicle wall: Jupiterimages

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How can I avoid catching a cold at the office?
Chanie Kirschner is a veteran of the cubicle germ wars. Here's her battle plan.