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How to reduce your risk of getting colds and flu


Cold and flu season is at its peak right now. So what can you do to keep from picking up germs from friends, co-workers and family members? This week on WRVO's health and wellness show "Take Care," hosts Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen speak with Dr. Philip Tierno, a professor at NYU Medical Center and the author of the book, "The Secret Life of Germs: What They Are, Why We Need Them." Tierno discusses the science behind his recommendations for how to avoid picking up a cold or flu bug.

Lorraine Rapp: We are in the throes of cold and flu season. We’ve all been told that washing our hands is the single best defense against picking up and spreading germs. How true is that?

Dr. Philip Tierno: It’s very true. In fact, if you look at how we transmit colds, and flu, we do it by direct and indirect means. Direct, like coughing, talking, and sneezing. Indirect, touching an inanimate object like a door knob and then touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, which are the conduits of entry into the body and that’s how we get sick. So if you contaminate your hands, no matter how contaminated they are, simply washing them well eliminates what you’ve picked up from the indirect transmission.

Rapp: How long do those germs stay alive on that surface and then how long will they stay alive and potent on your own hands?

Tierno: Rhinoviruses, which are the most common cold viruses, can last twenty-four hours and even longer. As a matter of fact, germs are spread very efficiently by touch. Someone sneezing on their hands and touching different articles can actually contaminate a large segment of a population that touched whatever it was they contaminated.

Rapp: And then what about on your own hands?

Tierno: It depends on what else is there. Not be gross, but if you have mucus, you know, on your hands, with the sneeze or the germs you come in contact with, they can stay longer because the mucus is protective and it allows viability. Germs vary with regard to how long they can stay on a different place. You can’t really put a specific figure on it because of the variability of circumstances.

Linda Lowen: So when you say wash your hands “well” what is “well” and you’ve got a rule of thumb for us?

Tierno: Yep. Washing your hands to the tune of “Happy Birthday” sung twice. You wash in between your digits, you wash the top and bottom of your hands, and you get under your nail bed by scraping your nails on an open palm as you have suds there,  then you rinse and you may repeat the process if you’re really a, a rapid washer.

Rapp: Dr. Tierno, I’m sure your friends and family ask you what you do. So what do you do to protect yourself?

Tierno: Ok. The first thing you do, especially with the flu, you get your vaccine. Nothing would be better. Even a bad vaccine, like this year’s vaccine, is worthwhile getting. The second thing is to remember to practice good personal hygiene, especially hand washing prior to eating or drinking anything or touching your face. You do that, that takes care of the bulk of transmission. Also, you should practice good household hygiene and office hygiene. Commonly touched surfaces should be periodically cleaned, and you have to be aware that they contain the materials deposited by other people. Sleeping at least eight hours a day, actually, [there] is growing evidence between sleep and a healthy immune system, because you need a good immune system to help you. And if you’re sick, stay home so you don’t contaminate others. And, if someone is obviously sick, stand clear, even if it’s a relative looking to hug you and kiss you. Tell them, “I can’t afford to get a cold. You’re sick.” Those are the simple, obvious things that a person can do to cut down on risk. You can never eliminate it totally though. 

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.