So you think you're a germaphobe during cold and flu season? Think about doctors who go from exam room to exam room, not knowing what kind of viruses might be waiting for them?
They'll try anything to avoid those germs.
The first line of defense is getting a flu shot. "That's a no-brainer," says Dr. Ari Brown, M.D., a pediatrician based in West Lake Hills, Texas, and author of several books including "Baby 411" and "Toddler 411."
"I am very careful to never touch my face," she says. "Most people do this without thinking, numerous times a day — rubbing nose, eyes, et cetera."
Brown says she also washes her hands thoroughly and often.
"Hand washing is 80-85 percent of the game," agrees Dr. Jack Chou, M.D., a family physician in Baldwin Park, California, and a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Chou says he makes certain his office surfaces — including counters, keyboards and his stethoscope — are cleaned with sanitizing wipes. "That's to make sure I don't get it and to make sure I don't pass it on to my next patient," he says.
In addition, if a patient checks in who has a flu-like illness or symptoms of an upper respiratory infection, the patient is asked to wear a mask to help keep germs from spreading.
Chou said how he greets his patients changes during this time of year.
"Instead of getting hugs and handshakes, I stick to fist bumps," he says. "It's OK to touch the patient, but limiting direct physical contact goes a long way."
Fighting the good fight
Going into cold and flu system with a healthy immune system can help your body fight off germs when they strike. That means eating healthy, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and fighting stress.
"Avoid feeling rundown both mentally and physically so your immune system doesn’t take a hit," says Chou. "During cold and flu season, maybe pick an exercise that won't leave you prone to be exposed to a lot of germs. If you go to the gym, make sure you wipe down the equipment."
For his part, Chou does plenty of walking. He and his family eat healthy, usually doing the cooking at home. After all, if you're eating out, you don't know if someone sick is preparing or handling your food.
"A cold is a virus and viruses gets transmitted so it's better if you have control over your environment," Chou says. "Use common sense."
Alternative remedies rule
Plenty of people pop zinc, vitamin C, echinacea or other herbal remedies at the first sign of cold. Doctors are no different.
“I use echinacea and goldenseal because they help boost the immune system and fight off microbes,” Lauren Richter, DO, assistant professor of family and community medicine at the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine, tells WebMD. “I like the teas, but a lot of people don’t like the taste, so pills are fine.”
Still, there's little scientific evidence that many herbal remedies can prevent or treat cold symptoms.
Chou prefers a nasal saline spray to help move mucus. He says it can decrease symptoms and lower the risk of a viral infection developing into a sinus infection. He sometimes also takes vitamin C and zinc lozenges.
"My daughter just got sick from school, and I'm starting to get a scratch in my throat today, so I took a dose of vitamin C," says Chou. "There's interesting evidence showing that vitamin C and a small amount of zinc can shorten a cold by a day, and in the life of a family physician, one day can be a lot!"
The culprit at home
Both Chou and Brown say it's not their patients who typically spread germs; it's their families.
"I get colds only when my kids get colds," says Chou, who points out that he wants more than fist bumps from his little ones.
"I rarely get sick from my patients; I only catch things from my own kids," says Brown. "When I am at home, I do what most parents do. I hug and kiss my kids, share drinks and food, and share computers, phones and other surfaces that may carry germs on them for hours. That's why when something goes through a household, the entire house gets it — and mine is no exception."