I grew up in the Midwest where it was considered common courtesy to always say "Gesundheit!" when someone sneezed. Gesundheit is the German word for "health" and it is noteworthy that cultures have long recognized the connection between health and sneezing as sneezing is the primary way in which many illnesses including colds and the flu are spread from person to person.
The typical sneeze can produce as many as 40,000 droplets which travel from the nose at speeds over 200 miles per hour! Most of these droplets are so tiny that they cannot be seen by the naked eye, yet they are capable of carrying well over 200 million virus particles. Once these droplets leave the nose they may remain airborne for hours or settle on counters, doors and other surfaces where they remain infectious for days. In addition to direct contact with airborne droplets, infections can be transmitted when infected hands come in contact with the mouse, nose or eyes.
The Center for Disease Control recommends that everyone 6 months of age or older receive an annual flu shot. Although the flu shot is not 100% effective, during most seasons it is about 60% effective at protecting against 3 to 4 most severe strains of the flu and about 80% effective at reducing the risk of dying from the flu. Unfortunately, the flu shot offers no immunity against the common cold or the myriad of other viral illnesses we encounter each winter and although there are some antiviral medications which may shorten the course or intensity of the influenza virus, antibiotics are not effective against colds or most viral illnesses.
In addition to taking the flu shot here are several very practical things you can do to reduce your risk of catching a cold or the flu:
- Avoid contact with people who are infected.
- If you are infected, stay home for at least one day after your fever breaks.
- Use tissue to cover your face when sneezing and throw the tissue away.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water or use hand sanitizer often.
- Avoid hand to nose, mouth, or eye contact as this spreads the viruses.
- Get plenty of rest, exercise, and good nutrition to maintain a healthy immune system.
The next time you are tempted to push through your illness and go to work or school while sick, do yourself and everyone a big favor and stay home and rest until you are better.