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Dr. Germ's advice on avoiding colds and flu

Claus Rebler

The flu and flu-related complications hospitalize more than 200,000 people each year. But experts say there a lot of ways people can try to avoid catching flu and cold germs and help keep them from spreading.

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Philip Tierno discusses how to reduce your likelihood of contracting and spreading the flu. Tierno is a professor in the department of pathology and microbiology at NYU Langone Medical Center and is also the author of “The Secret Life of Germs: What They Are, Why We Need Them and How We Can Protect Ourselves against Them.” Because of his expertise, he’s earned the nickname “Dr. Germ.”

Tierno says the best defense against spreading germs is washing your hands.

“If you look at how we contract cold or transmit colds and flu, we do it by direct and indirect means,” Tierno says. “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.”

The most common cold viruses, rhinoviruses, can stay alive for 24 hours, or longer, on a surface.  

“Germs are spread very efficiently by touch,” Tierno says.

However, the length those germs stay on hands varies.

“Germs vary with regard to how long they can stay on a different place,” Tierno says. “You can’t really put a specific figure on it because of the variability of circumstances.”

Credit Claudio Beck / Flickr

  Tierno suggests washing your hands for the time it takes you to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. He says you need to wash your entire hand – top, bottom, between your fingers and under your fingernails.

The best thing to do is washing your hands with simple soap and water. Washing your hands from anywhere between 20 to 30 seconds will eradicate the germs.

If soap and water is not available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using an alcohol-based solution hand sanitizer.

A solution with 62 percent alcohol is considered sufficient enough to kill off the germs on your hands as opposed to soap and water which would only eliminate germs.

But Tierno says more important than hygiene in preventing getting sick, is getting vaccinated. 

“The first thing you do, especially with the flu, you get your vaccine,” Tierno says. “Nothing would be better. Even a bad vaccine, like this year’s vaccine, is worthwhile getting.”

Tierno says another thing to help avoid getting ill is to make sure you get eight hours of sleep a day since there’s a correlation between sleep and a good immune system. Also, stay home if you’re sick and avoid large crowds.