Here in the rural northeast, we rely on our cars to get around. Almost everyone learns to drive, including how to follow the rules of the road. Most people stop at stop signs, stay on their own side of the road, and signal before turning, for instance. Adhering to these rules not only keep us safe; they keep others safe as well.

Let's apply the same concept to cold and flu season. The flu is a serious illness that can keep even a very healthy person in bed for a week or two. For others, it can be life threatening. For the very young and the elderly, even the common cold can morph into something far more dangerous. What if we each took some simple steps to prevent colds and the flu from spreading to our family, friends, coworkers, and classmates? Here are eight ways you can work to ensure yours and your neighbors' safety.

• Protect your overall health. You know that exercise, healthy eating habits, stress management, good hydration, and rest protect your body from diseases that are not contagious, like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. These habits also help your immune system fight off infectious diseases like the cold and flu. That's why it is always good to be working on creating just one new healthy habit. Nearly everyone can identify a way that they can improve their overall health.

For the greatest chance of success, choose just one achievable goal at a time, and master that habit before moving on to the next.


• Catch your coughs and sneezes, even if you feel you are not sick. If you know you are going to sneeze in advance, a tissue—disposed of in the trash as soon as it is used—is best. If a sneeze takes you by surprise, sneeze into the inside of your elbow. By showing off your germ-catching abilities, you set an example and increase the likelihood others will practice good hygiene, too.

• Wash, wash, wash your hands whenever they are dirty, after using the bathroom, before eating, and as you enter your home at the end of the work or school day. Many schools now require children to wash their hands before they enter the classroom and have noticed positive results. If you work with others, keep hand sanitizer in your work space and use a squirt before touching your computer or other tools. Keep sanitizer in your car, and use it after visiting any public area. Between washings, avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, the most common places germs gain access into your body.

• Clean your space, too. A regular routine of cleaning and disinfecting the frequently touched areas—doorknobs, faucets, and electronics like television remotes, keyboards, and phones—at home and at work can make an impact in preventing the most common illnesses. Apply extra effort if someone in your household has been ill.

• Get a flu shot. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone gets the vaccine as soon as it becomes available, preferably before the end of October. Get your vaccine in your primary care office, if possible. Your primary care provider can advise whether you should get other vaccines like pneumonia, shingles or meningitis. The sooner you get the flu vaccine and the others you need the sooner the protection takes effect. Note the nasal mist variety of flu vaccine will not be available this year, due to doubts in its effectiveness.

• Encourage others. Once you get your shot, ensure that members of your family are vaccinated, too. The flu shot is not 100 percent effective; however, as the number of people vaccinated increases, the chances of anyone getting the flu decreases. Social media is a great place to share the news of having received your flu shot. Friends who see that you have gotten your flu shot will likely feel that they should get one too.

Steer clear. If you are aware that someone near you is sick, try to avoid close contact with them. And if you feel ill, stay home.

• Practice all year long. It's not as if we drive safely only when the weather is bad. By practicing these healthy habits all year, we make it more likely that we will follow through when it will make the greatest impact, during cold and flu season.

We are all in this together. Your actions have the potential to affect many others. Take your cold and flu prevention responsibility as seriously as you do your responsibility to be a safe driver, and, together, we will lessen the overall impact of cold and flu season.

— Marie George, MD, is the medical director for Infectious Disease at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. "Health Matters" is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care. For more columns like this one, visit