8 Cold and Flu Prevention Habits That May Be a Waste of Time
Want to avoid getting sick this cold and flu season? We asked medical experts which cold- and flu-fighting tips are a waste of time, and which ones really work.
Expert-approved ways to beat cold and flu
Cold and flu season is a time of the year when it seems almost impossible to avoid getting sick. Colds can keep you off your feet for days at a time, while a bad case of the flu can land you in the hospital or worse. More than 80 percent of people take one or more steps to avoid catching or spreading the flu, research suggests. A 2018 study published in PLoS ONE found that people typically tried to wash their hands more often, covered cough and sneezes, stayed home if they were sick, avoided other people who were sick, used hand sanitizers, as well as got treatment as soon as possible or made sure to get the flu vaccine.
Other people will resort to more unconventional prevention methods, from "sweating it out" at the gym to keeping their windows open. But do these habits actually work or are they a waste of time?
Our medical experts break down some of those cold and flu hacks that are a waste of time and disclose what does work when it comes to cold and flu prevention. (Find out if taking zinc is good for preventing colds.)
Sweating it out with exercise
You've probably heard the phrase "sweat it out of your system," especially during cold and flu season. But, it's actually not a good idea to do so, according to Aaron Milstone, MD, MHS, an associate hospital epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and professor of pediatrics with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. "I don't know of any scientific data to support [this claim]," he says. Dr. Milstone also worries that vigorous exercise when you're sick could actually make things worse: "People need to be careful exercising when they are sick to ensure they don't get dehydrated," he says.
Over-relying on hand sanitizer
"Hand sanitizers can be helpful. Hand sanitizer can prevent illness, as people often put dirty hands on their face—eyes, nose, mouth—and infect themselves," says Dr. Milstone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hand sanitizers that have an alcohol concentration between 60 percent and 95 percent are optimal for use if soap and water is not readily available. However, they aren't a replacement for soap-and-water washing, particularly if you have visible dirt and grime on your hands, according to the CDC.
And overuse of sanitizer can lead to some germs becoming resistant to the alcohol in hand rub cleaners. "Like many things in life—more is not always better," according to Dr. Milstone. (Learn more about how long the effects of hand sanitizing last.)
Using homeopathic treatments to prevent the flu
Dr. Milstone agrees that there may be benefits to using home remedies and natural substances, like oregano spray. But, he says, there is no evidence that it will prevent or cure a cold or the flu.
"Natural remedies will likely not hurt, but there is no strong data to say they will help either," he says.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health states that, "[a] 2015 comprehensive assessment of evidence by the Australian government's National Health and Medical Research Council concluded that there is no reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective for any health condition." Read more on what natural cold remedies may or may not work.
Using food to fight the flu
Whether it's eating more citrus fruits to boost vitamin C levels; leafy greens for vitamins K, A, or C; or garlic in milk for its anti-inflammatory properties, some people believe certain foods or an unusual combination of foods can ward off a cold or flu before it starts. But, according to Dr. Milstone, that's not the case.
"Healthy eating is important in general, but it is not clear that any foods are special 'flu-fighting' foods," he says. (See what foods doctors eat when they have a cold.) Chicken noodle soup and hot tea may make you feel a little better, but will not cure a cold or the flu.
Keeping the windows open
While it may be that germs like bacteria can grow or multiply in warm places, opening a window won't kill viruses. There is a reason that cold and flu season is during the winter and not in the summer, says Dr. Milstone. Cold and flu viruses can thrive even in cold, dry air. "Respiratory viruses circulate in the winter when it is cold, but it is not known that lower temperatures get rid of germs," he says.
However, fresh air isn't necessarily a bad idea, as sealed windows and indoor environments can mean that flu or cold germs are circulating and may be more easily transmitted from one person to another. (Here are the 6 answers to common cold questions.)
Incorrectly using over-the-counter medicine
When you feel a cold or the flu coming on, you may stock up on over-the-counter medication or those labeled as "preventative" to try to prevent a cold or the flu. But, says Dr. Milstone, not only will they probably not help, they may actually hurt. "Over-the-counter medications for viruses have side effects and should be taken cautiously. They should be avoided for children," he says. (Here are the hidden dangers of OTC medications.)
These products won't shorten the duration of your cold or flu-related illness, but they may help ease the symptoms if used properly.
Using an antibiotic
If you feel a cold or the flu coming on, don't use an antibiotic or ask your doctor for one. Antibiotics help kill bacteria but are useless for fighting the viruses that cause colds. These medications will have no impact on the cold or flu virus and can have side effects that cause harm. For example, potential side effects of antibiotics can include an allergic reaction, the promotion of antibiotic-resistant infections, and a higher risk of a C. diff infection, which is a potentially life-threatening type of diarrhea.
Skipping the flu shot because you feel fine
This is definitely not a trick that should be tried, says Robert Segal, MD, FACC, RPVI , a New York-based cardiologist and founder of Manhattan Cardiology. "The vaccine can't transmit the infection because it is made from an inactive virus. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to kick in," Dr. Segal says.
If you get the flu shot when you've already started to feel flu-like symptoms, it's not enough time for the vaccine to become effective in your system and fight off the flu. And for those who still got the flu even after getting the shot, Dr. Segal says they were most likely on their way to getting sick before receiving the injection. "Compared to other vaccines, the flu vaccine has one of the best safety records. The most common side effect is the tenderness around the injection site," he says.
Flu season typically picks up in the fall, and peaks in December, January, and February. However, it can last until May. "It is generally recommended to get the flu shot in October," Dr. Segal says. "When more people receive the flu vaccine, the virus is less able to circulate in the community." (Find out how late is too late to get the flu shot.)
What may actually help prevent the flu
You can still be proactive when it comes to cold and flu management. It can help to wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with your unwashed hands; and steer clear of people who aren't feeling their best (if that's possible), according to the CDC.
Dr. Milstone adds that vaccinations are key to ensuring that you stay safe throughout flu season. "Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine. The number one way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccine," he says.
Other ways to prevent the flu as well as colds, he says, include practicing cough etiquette. Cough etiquette calls for coughing into the crook of your elbow and washing your hands frequently, Dr. Milstone says. (This is what could be causing your lingering cough.)
- PLoS ONE: “Preventive behaviors adults report using to avoid catching or spreading influenza, United States, 2015-16 influenza season”
- Aaron Milstone, MD, MHS, associate hospital epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and professor of pediatrics with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings”
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Homeopathy”
- CDC: “Common Cold”
- Robert Segal, MD, FACC, RPVI, cardiologist and founder of Manhattan Cardiology, New York City
- CDC: “Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others”