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Though most of us have two to three common colds every year, there are indeed things we can do to prevent them. What do you need to know to protect yourself and others?

Colds are called "common" for a reason — most adults get two to three of them each year, and young children are likely to catch more than double that amount. Caused by over 200 different viruses, colds will give you a runny nose, and have you sneezing and coughing. Headaches and a general state of "I don't feel so good" are also often part and parcel of the whole experience. [1, 2

If you want to avoid getting the flu, you can get a flu shot to protect yourself and others. The process of developing flu vaccines is complicated enough in itself, because strains evolve and the formula constantly needs to be updated, but for the common cold, caused by so many different viruses, there will probably not be a vaccine for a very long time — if ever.

That doesn't mean you're completely powerless if you would really like to prevent common colds, though. What can you do to protect yourself and others?

Prevention Over Cure: What You Can Do To Avoid Colds

Once one of the many viruses that cause colds reach your eyes, mouth, or nose, you're done for — and you may be slightly surprised to learn that you don't necessarily have to shake the hands of someone who's just sneezed into it, or have someone cough into your face, to catch a cold. Much research has been done on the way in which common colds can be transmitted, only fitting considering that it's the most common acute infectious disease out there. Some of it has found that [3]:

  • Most people with common colds have rhinovirus — one of the more common causes of the cold — on their hands, and that virus was also found on 43 percent of plastic tiles touched by these people.
  • A study that invited people with colds to stay in a hotel overnight revealed that 35 percent of the objects they touched there contained rhinovirus. 
  • Rhinovirus can survive on dry surfaces for up to a week (!!!) and for at least two hours on the skin. 

All of this points us in the direction of a cheap and simple way to help you prevent the common cold — handwashing! Considering that most people don't wash their hands properly, you may want to make sure you're not one of them. You should wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, scrubbing well, after using the restroom, before eating and during food preparation, after being in contact with sick people, and after sneezing or coughing, the CDC says, and that's just the start. [4

When it comes to preventing the common cold, washing your hands periodically after spending time in just about any public place, or after being around people who may be incubating a cold even if they don't have symptoms yet, works wonders. That brings us to the next point, to avoid touching your face with unwashed hands. This is something that can help you avoid a cold even if you already had a virus that can cause it on your hands. Another step you can try to take, though this may prove difficult because many people do not take time off work or stay home when they have a cold, is to stay away from people with colds. [1]

What about nutrition? Doesn't that matter? The idea that taking large doses of vitamin C prevents colds is especially common, but there's no evidence that it works — even though vitamin C may, in fact, help you recover from a cold more quickly [5]. There's also little proof that probiotics [6], zinc [7], vitamin D [8], or Echinacea [9] play much of a role in preventing common colds.

How Can You Protect Other People From Colds?

People with weakened immune systems — elderly folks, young children, and those with HIV, diabetes, or asthma, for instance — are at greater risk of developing complications even from something as simple as the common cold. What if it's already too late for prevention for you, and you have a common cold? Pneumonia isn't cool, so you don't want to be responsible for spreading your germs around. In light of that [1, 10]:

  • Stay home when you have a common cold, if you can. 
  • If you can't, stay away from other people — no shaking hands, hugging, kissing, and so on. 
  • Sneeze and cough into a tissue that you then discard, and then wash your hands considering the fact that you will get germs on your hands. You can also cough and sneeze into your elbow instead. Because you touch so much stuff with your hands, this will help prevent you from contaminating surfaces that others will then touch. 
  • Disinfect surfaces you touch — think doorknobs, smart phones, keyboards, and the like — with antibacterial wipes. 

Conclusion

Common colds are merely annoying to most people — and even that is plenty reason to take steps to try to prevent them. For vulnerable people with weakened immune systems colds can, however, be genuinely dangerous. Protect yourself and your community by washing your hands often, remembering to disinfect commonly-touched surfaces on which cold viruses often live, and training yourself to not touch your face so often. 

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