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Minimizing Cold and Flu Germs at Home
Germs are everywhere, even in a healthy home. Find out what you can do to protect your family when cold and flu germs come indoors.
By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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You'll find germs everywhere — even in the healthiest homes. Aside from avoiding contact with the outside world for the duration of cold and flu season, there isn't much you can do to prevent a contagious cold or flu germs from sneaking their way into your home. But you can still take precautions to prevent these germs from spreading throughout your family.
"You can't get rid of all the germs in your house," says Robert W. Dolan, MD, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. "Some bacteria are normal and live on or inside our bodies. If we got rid of all these germs they might be replaced with worse germs."
A Healthy Home for Cold and Flu Season
Cold and flu viruses are mainly spread from person to person when people cough, sneeze, and talk. If someone comes into your home with a contagious cold or flu, those germs are coming in, too. But it may not be practical or even wise to be obsessed with trying to disinfect your entire home.
First-time mom Corinne Sheh of Randolph, Mass. geared up for her first cold and flu season with a baby. "I'm not a cleaning freak," says Sheh. "I know that some germs are necessary for a baby to develop a healthy immune system. But I do want to protect my baby from cold and flu viruses this winter. I am cleaning a lot more than I used to and I am looking for cleaning products that are antiseptic and non-toxic."
Tips for Minimizing Cold and Flu Germs in a Healthy Home"The first thing I did was get a flu shot. I made sure my husband got one, too," says Sheh. “Babies less than 6 months old can't get the shot, so it's really important that parents do.”
"I have three kids of my own," says Dr. Dolan. "I know they are going to be in contact with contagious cold and flu germs at school, so we try to do everything we can to keep those germs from spreading at home." Here are some tips:
- Know the duration of colds.If someone in your home gets a cold or flu virus, you should know that they can shelter the virus for one day before getting sick and for up to seven days after getting sick. During that time, designate a special part of the house for the sick person, such as an extra bedroom or the comfiest couch in the living room, to keep them from contaminating other parts of the house.
- Beware of sharing."Don't share cups, glasses, plates, and utensils that can pass germs from one family member to another," says Dolan. Clean everything in hot soapy water or in the dishwasher. Don't leave anything lying around the house.
- Clean surfaces.Wipe down surfaces with a clean, disposable paper towel instead of a sponge, and then throw out the towel. Pay special attention to bedside tables, bathroom counters, faucet handles, and kitchen counters.
- Read labels on cleaning products.To use the word "sanitize" a product must kill more than 99 percent of specified bacteria within 30 seconds. The word "disinfect" means a product must kill all specified germs within 10 minutes.
- Go “green.”Consider non-toxic cleaning products that kill viruses and bacteria using natural disinfectants such as thyme or citric acids. Many are safe to disinfect children's toys and high-chair surfaces, but read the label carefully to be sure.
- Keep plenty of tissues available around the house."Teach your children to use tissues for sneezing, coughing, and nose blowing. Make sure tissues are thrown out directly into the trash after using them," advises Dolan.
- Teach kids proper hand-washing.Make sure your bathrooms have soap. Wash hands in soapy water for as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice. Between washings, avoid touching your hands to your face. Set out paper towels instead of cloth towels for hand-drying in your kitchen and bathrooms.
- Offer hand sanitizers."Distribute hand sanitizers around the house," says Dolan. Make sure your hand sanitizer contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Spray the hand sanitizer into the hands and rub hands together until they are dry.
A healthy home doesn't need to be completely germ-free. Contagious cold and flu viruses don't come from dirty homes — they come from people. But take common-sense precautions to keep hands and surfaces free of germs. "You can only do your best to keep a healthy home. Once kids are old enough, they should all get a flu shot. As much as you would like to stop every cold from reaching your child, you just can't. It's probably nature's way of helping kids build up a healthy immune system," Sheh says.
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