They're all around us from winter to spring: Coughing, sneezing, red-nosed coworkers who claim they're coming down with something. That something could mean you'll soon be following suit if you don't take the proper precautions to avoid and prevent illness.
Maintaining a hygienic workplace is certainly a challenge, especially given that the majority of us don't stay home when we're sick, but there are ways to avoid getting sick at the office.
First you have to understand the basics of catching the common cold or flu. It's disgusting to think about, but when you're face to face with someone with a contagious illness, it's the droplets from their mouth or nose ending up in yours that's actually the root of the problem, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Less often, you get sick from touching a surface or object that has a virus on it, and then touching your own mouth, eyes or nose.
Most people know to wash their hands after shaking someone's hand or using someone else's keyboard or phone, and to avoid close, prolonged contact with anyone who has a cold. As cold and flu season, which generally runs from November to April, begins, here are five other pointers health organizations offer for skirting illness.
1. Keep your distance
If you know you're ill, the CDC recommends staying home until at least 24 hours after your fever is gone. Flu-like symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue, the CDC reports. Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea. Others experience respiratory symptoms without a fever.
You may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) reports. Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Some people, especially young children and people with weakened immunity systems, might be able to infect others for an even longer time.
For these reasons, it's best to avoid exposure. For instance, where possible and appropriate, limit handshaking, especially at lunch meetings, Dr. Juan Carlos Baez of the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital-Rahway, N.J., advises.
2. Take your pick
There's a reason flu shots are available on every corner. A yearly flu shot is the single-best way to prevent the flu, according to the CDC.
They may be available as early as August each year, though protection lasts about six to eight months, so consider the timing as you decide when to get your flu shot. Cold and flu season usually peaks in February, but three times in recent years it has peaked in December.
Contrary to popular belief, flu vaccines do not contain live flu viruses, though side effects may occur.
For the 2016-2017 flu season, the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend the flu spray and suggests all children ages 6 months and older get the flu shot instead.
3. Beware the common areas
"Think about the places multiple hands go," CDC Spokesman Jeff Dimond says, like door handles, the fax machine, office coffee pot, elevator buttons and the water fountain.
In addition, don't forget to wash up after touching shared books, food or food containers handled by others and hand or power tools, advises the Center for Hygiene & Health in Home and Community at Simmons College in Boston.
The hygiene and health center suggests office workers use a paper towel to open bathroom doors or turn on/off sink faucets. Baez, who specializes in infectious diseases, says elbows also work on door handles and faucets. Contagious viruses can survive up to three hours on those objects, as well as on telephones and stair railings.
4. Skip the 'anti'
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently banned 19 ingredients in antibacterial soap because they may be dangerous and because antibacterial soap is no better at killing germs than regular soap and water at preventing illness or stopping the spread of infection. Instead, use plain soap and water, hand sanitizer or products that "specifically state they will reduce germs and aid you in fighting the flu this season," Baez says.
Similarly, when trying to treat or prevent illness, be aware that antibiotics don't work for colds, NIAID warns. Colds are caused by viruses. Antibiotics should only be used for sinusitis or ear infections, NIAID says.
Nonprescription cold remedies, including decongestants and cough suppressants, may relieve some of your cold symptoms but will not prevent or even shorten the length of your cold, according NIAID.
5. Consider nature's best
Vitamin C may reduce the severity and duration of illness, but it hasn't been proven to cure or prevent infection, NIAID cautions. In addition, taking large amounts of vitamin C over long periods of time may cause severe diarrhea, a particular danger for elderly people and small children.
Another natural remedy, the herbal supplement echinacea, has received mixed reviews for its ability to treat and prevent the common cold, NIAID reports. The same goes for zinc, believed to reduce the symptoms and duration of the common cold.
Honey has been shown to relieve coughing and soothe a sore throat, and drinking ginger or green tea can stimulate the immune system to fight off infections.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in October 2011.