During cold and flu season, it's socially acceptable to go to work if you feel under the weather-the first sign of a cold or flu-or to send kids to school when they feel that way. But it's the wrong thing to do, according to William Miller Jr., MD, a physician for over 30 years and author of The Microcosm Within.
"The spread of any infection begins with a single individual in any specific local setting," says Miller, and you can be contagious before more severe symptoms begin. In one study, a harmless, invisible powder, which could be tracked only with an ultraviolet light, was put on the hands of two children in a fourth-grade class. Within one hour, every child in the class had it on their hands, faces, and noses. "Any virulent pathogen can exhibit the same kind of rapid spread," Miller says.
The best way to stop the spread of colds and flu is to stay home when you don't feel well.
It's helpful to wash your hands often, and keep them away from your nose and mouth, where bugs can easily enter your system. However, you need to scrub with soap for 15-20 seconds, which most people don't do. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can protect against the spread of some bugs but not others.
"The single most effective means of improving health, particularly during seasonal illnesses such as the flu," says Miller, "is to create a culture that instructs those that are sick that they are expected to stay away and only return when they are better."
If that isn't possible, he recommends staying as far away as possible from a sick person, not touching surfaces they have touched, washing your hands often (the right way), not touching your face, and supporting your own immune system by getting enough sleep and nutrition.