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It’s that cringe-worthy moment we all dread: when your spouse comes down with a nasty GI virus, or your child sprays you with a sneeze, or your coworker insists on coming to work sick and then coughs all over the office supplies. You reach for the hand sanitizer and think: “Please keep me healthy.”
“At the end of the day, the world really belongs to the germs, and we just live here,” said Joseph McBride, MD, a UW Health infectious disease expert. “It’s probably very likely that we will come down with something this winter, and we do what we can to lower the risk to our loved ones. But all the efforts we take don’t eliminate the risk; it just lowers the risk.”
At this time of year, influenza or respiratory viruses are the most likely to spread, though gastrointestinal and even bacterial gastrointestinal illnesses can transmitted through household contact, too. While we can’t encase ourselves in a bubble, simple preventative measures can make a difference, McBride says. He shares these tips on how to stay healthy when illness strikes your home or workplace.
How to stay healthy when everyone else has a cold
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Get your flu vaccine. “It’s the best way to prevent your loved ones from catching influenza,” McBride said. “Obviously influenza vaccine has no impact on all the scores of other viruses that are out there, but it can keep you from developing influenza, which can be very serious.”
It can be hard to tell the difference between a simple cold and the flu, but if you or a family member suddenly develops a high fever and severe cough, get evaluated by a doctor. If it turns out to be influenza, you or other household members may be candidates for a preventative antiviral drug. “Prompt diagnosis for influenza is really important because it’s just a more serious disease,” he said.
Protect those most at risk. Those who are over 65, pregnant or have chronic medical conditions (including heart disease, asthma, neurological conditions, lung disease, HIV or other conditions) may not be the best caretakers for someone who is sick.
“Those people are more likely to develop more severe reactions to influenza or respiratory viruses,” McBride said. You may not have a choice if there’s no one else to help, but if you can, ask another family member to tend the sick person if you’re in a high-risk category. If possible, children under 5 should also keep their distance from those who are sick.
Watch for droplets. The most common way we catch a cold or the flu: by inhaling an infected person’s droplets, whether it’s from a sneeze, cough, or even talking or singing. If you know someone is sick, keep your distance physically. If you’re a parent of a sick kid, position your body so that your child is less likely to sneeze or cough into your face — for example, snuggle with their body facing away from yours. If you’re open to more dramatic measures, you could even wear a face mask or gloves while caring for a sick loved one.
Sanitize those surfaces. “Some of these respiratory viruses live on surfaces like telephones, cups and dirty laundry, and you touch those surfaces and then put your hands on your face or nose. Phones are especially notorious for harboring germs,” McBride said. “To really lower your risk, you need to block both the droplets and the transmission through surfaces.”
Regular cleaners are sufficient. “A lot of people worry about the best type of cleaners to use, but what’s more important is the breadth of what is cleaned,” McBride said. “You don’t need to go overboard. The whole house doesn’t need to be turned upside down and bleached. But make sure at least once a day to wipe down countertops and the sink, and replace cups.”
Even after your family member or officemate is recovered, their germs could linger on surfaces. “Each respiratory virus is different — some are more durable than others,” he said. “With influenza, the virus can remain active on a surface between 2 to 24 hours, so clean once a day.”
Be vigilant at the office, too. “It’s hard in a big office setting to think that every counter is going to be wiped down, that everyone coughing is covering their mouth, and that everyone with symptoms won’t be coming into work. So we have less control over our exposure in a work setting,” he said. “But that said, you generally have less intimate contact with people at work than you do at home, so the risk of transmitting is less.” Regularly wipe down your keyboard, computer mouse, phone and any other shared office equipment with disinfectant.
Create a sick room. Your goal is to isolate the rest of the household from the sick person as much as possible. “You want to make them comfortable, but if you have the ability to bring them things like food and drink, rather than having them migrate through the house, that would be ideal,” he said.
Line your trash can. “A trash can with used tissues is a highly infectious area,” McBride said. Use a plastic liner so that you don’t have to come in contact with used tissues and so that your trash can isn’t contaminated.
Open a window. It may be tougher on those bitterly cold days, but good air flow can help. You could simply open a window or use a fan to direct air outside. “A lot of these viruses lay in the air and then settle down onto surfaces,” he said. “So if you can recycle air out of the room, that would encourage droplets to be moved outside of the room instead of staying stagnant.”
Wash the laundry. When someone in your house has been sick, it’s important to promptly wash towels, bedding and clothes, and wash your hands after handling the laundry. “Dirty laundry is notorious for spreading germs,” he said.
Wash your hands frequently. It’s common sense, but still worth noting. Wash your hands as soon as you come home, after using the bathroom, before you eat, and whenever else you may have come in contact with an infected person or surface. Ideally, wash your hands for the length of two “Happy Birthday” songs. Also, remind the person who is sick to wash their hands regularly to limit the germs they spread through the house. Hand washing is the best way to ward off GI viruses, which are spread through fecal contact. “Norovirus, in particular, is very infamous for being incredibly transmissible,” McBride said. “It doesn’t take a lot of virus to get you sick.” If a sink isn’t handy, alcohol-free hand sanitizer is also a good option.
Be extra careful to banish germs after strep. With most other viruses, your body builds up antibodies that prevent you from getting that same virus again, but Group A strep can cause repeat infections. It’s a good idea to replace your toothbrush after strep to avoid re-infecting yourself.
Take care of yourself. Not everyone who is exposed to a virus actually becomes ill. “People who are healthier and more active are less likely to get sick,” McBride said. It’s yet another reason to keep up that exercise routine.
Don’t count on preventative products. While some people might swear by over-the-counter products like Airborne, “there’s not a whole lot of evidence that they actually work,” McBride said. The best way to avoid getting sick is to simply avoid exposure in the first place.
Just do your best. “Not all families have the ability to separate people or to get masks, but even these small things like hand washing and having a separate trash for used tissue could make a difference,” McBride said.