30 Everyday Mistakes That Raise Your Risk of Catching a Cold
No one wants to get sick, but somehow we always do. Here's what you could be doing better to stave off sniffles.
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You wash your hands wrong
You know the importance of hand-washing for warding off germs, but you might not realize you’re probably washing your hands wrong, and not often enough. “Washing hands with mild soap and warm water for 20 seconds or more is the correct technique,” says Matthew Mathias, MD, a family medicine doctor at Duke Health in Durham, North Carolina. “Repeating the ‘ABC’ song in your head twice while washing your hands can help people get the timing down.” Don’t miss these 9 clear signs that a cold is coming.
You binge-watch Netflix
Binge-watching may make you more tired than ever, and a lack of sleep can weaken your ability to fight off colds. “Lack of sleep has an adverse effect on your immune system, decreasing your number of white blood cells, T-cells, and antibodies that fight infection,” says sleep expert Richard Shane, PhD, and creator of the Sleep Easy method. “Studies show when people who have insufficient sleep are exposed to a cold virus, they get infected with the cold more—and take longer to recover—than people who have sufficient sleep,” Dr. Shane says. Here are 7 more surprising things that happen to your body when you catch a cold.
You always take the elevator
If you always take the elevator or exhibit these other 8 signs you need to move more, your lack of exercise could up your risk for a cold. “Moderate exercise boosts circulation, enhances energy, and fights against illness,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. According to the National Institutes of Health, physical activity may help circulate your white blood cells that fight infection, as well as flush out bacteria from the lungs and airways to reduce your risk of a cold. Plus, elevator buttons are covered in germs. Here’s how to avoid a cold and stay healthy.
You hit the mall on big shopping days
There are probably a bunch of ways you’re doing Black Friday all wrong, but the biggest mistake could be hitting the mall to begin with. The more crowded the area, the more likely you are to come in contact with cold germs. “During the holidays, I find that the frenzied pace of life guides people toward making bad decisions about a variety of things, including the decision to go shopping despite being ill,” says Dr. Mathias.
You’re using the wrong hand sanitizer
You don’t need to use antibacterial soap or hand sanitizer to stay germ-free, especially since colds are caused by viruses. Plus, antibacterial products could actually kill good bacteria too, and lead to antibiotic resistance, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. If you can’t wash your hands, which the CDC says is the best way to clean them, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol, advises Partha Nandi, MD, a gastroenterologist in Detroit, Michigan, and author of Ask Dr. Nandi. Try one of these tricks that doctors and nurses swear by to stop a cold in its tracks.
You’re a close talker
Up there with the ABCs of cold and flu prevention is to keep your distance from sick people, which the CDC recommends. “Avoid standing within five feet of someone who you think may have a cold for more than five minutes,” Dr. Mathias says. It might be even better to keep your distance in general because you never know who may be coming down with something. Check out these 12 other surprising reasons why you have the sniffles all-year-round.
You bite your nails
You’ll want to try these tricks to stop biting your nails for good after learning that the habit can make you more likely to get sick. “Nail-biting and touching your face introduces micro-organisms into your body through your nose, mouth, or eyes, where they take hold and invade the rest of your system,” Dr. Mathias says. Germs can linger under fingernails, which could mean you’re literally chowing down on them.
You have that extra glass or two of wine
“While alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, it interferes with deep, restorative sleep,” which is needed to prevent illness, Dr. Shane says. “Alcohol blocks the REM phase of sleep, and causes you to wake up too early, with your heart beating more quickly, which makes it harder to fall back to sleep.”
You indulge your sweet tooth
Sugar can be addictive and have negative impacts on more than just your waistline. “A diet rich in sugar may impact the balance of intestinal flora in your gut, which plays a major role in the immune system,” Palinski-Wade says. “A high-sugar diet may throw off the balance of healthy bacteria in the gut, which in turn may have a negative impact on the immune system and increase your chance of getting sick.” Make sure to stop doing these 9 innocent habits that are totally sabotaging your immune system.
You hit the gym for intense workouts
It is possible you’re working out too much or too intensely, which could take its toll on your immune system. “The body produces stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, during exercise that temporarily weaken the immune system,” Palinski-Wade says. “Very intense exercise on a regular basis may increase the amount of stress hormones in the body and impact white blood cells, weakening the immune system” and causing you to get sick.
You don’t wipe down machines at the gym
You don’t want to be that annoying sick person at the gym—but you never know when one might have used that treadmill before you, so it’s important not to skip your gym-cleaning routine. “Practice wiping down all equipment with an alcohol-based wipe before and after using it, and wash your hands before eating or drinking,” Palinski-Wade says. “Bring your own water to the gym to reduce having to use the water fountain and potentially picking up germs.”
You let work stress you out
Could stress be making you sick? Research has shown that people under chronic stress are more likely to catch a cold. “Psychosocial stressors have been shown to increase your susceptibility to illness,” says Erika Martinez-Uribe, MD, Piedmont Physicians Internal Medicine in Newnan, GA. “This has been shown to be true for heart disease and also for infection such as respiratory infections, or the common cold.”
You slack on cleaning
You probably don’t wash everyday items nearly enough, including those that can harbor cold-causing germs at your home or office, like your cell phone, doorknobs, remotes, light switches, and keyboards. “Our hands become one of the most common means by which infectious agents transfer from person to person,” Dr. Mathias says. “Anywhere we touch—door handle, sink brim, keyboard or mouse—will harbor micro-organisms for some period of time, and therefore cleaning these surfaces frequently will help reduce the spread of disease.” (Keep an eye out for these signs that your common cold could be something worse.)
You’re a clean freak
But, there is such a thing as being too clean—in fact, there are some germs we couldn’t live without. Plus, “cleaning too often, or treating your hands too harshly can cause skin breakdown,” Dr. Mathias says, which can make it more susceptible to germs. “Your skin is a living organ and needs to be intact to do its job effectively. Rubbing or washing your hands until they crack, or become raw defeats that purpose.”
You don’t snuggle enough
Although you’d think that being too close to your partner might lead to catching germs, getting hugs has magical health benefits—including warding off colds. In a study from Carnegie Mellon University, people who received more snuggles were less likely to get sick when exposed to the cold virus. The researchers theorized that the cuddles helped protect against the effects of stress, which make you more susceptible to illness.
You hate drinking water
You might need these genius tricks to guarantee you’re drinking enough water because, if you don’t, you might be raising your chances of getting sick. “Drinking too little fluid can lead to dehydration, which can impact energy, sleep, and your body’s ability to process and remove toxins,” Palinski-Wade says. “When this is impaired, the immune system is naturally weakened, which may increase the risk of illness.”
You stop at fast-food joints
While the occasional unhealthy fast-food meal is OK, if you make a habit it could wreak havoc on your body, making you more susceptible to colds. “Eating a diet rich in processed foods, high in refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, and sugar may increase inflammation and possibly alter gut bacteria, which may weaken the immune system,” Palinski-Wade says. “Eating a diet rich in produce, complex carbohydrates, such as beans and lentils along with whole grains, fish, and plant-based fats provide the body with an abundance of antioxidants that may aid the immune system.” Here are 7 more foods that can worsen your cold and flu symptoms.
You breathe wrong
Learning healthy breathing can reduce stress, but there’s another way you could be breathing better, too. A study from MIT found that droplets from sneezes and coughs can travel distances greater than previously thought. So especially if you hear someone sneeze or cough, “breathe out when walking past and breathe in after they pass,” Dr. Nandi says.
You use the railing
Can you guess the public objects with the most germs? Anything lots of people have touched, like handrails, ATM buttons, and grocery cart handles are full of germs, so try not to touch them directly or wash your hands right after. “Avoiding touching these areas in public spaces can be tricky,” Dr. Mathias says. “I’ve taken to using the back of my hand, elbow, or knuckle when possible instead of my fingertips, which have a tendency to make their way toward my face and put me at risk for catching an illness.” Make sure you know these other 12 everyday objects that are loaded with germs and can also make you sick.
You don’t carry your own pen
Having your own special pen might make you a better writer—and a healthier one, too. Think about the number of times you have to sign something for everyday errands (receipts, bank slips) and how many other people have used the same pen. “Touching objects can potentially pick up the cold virus from others who are infected,” Dr. Nandi says. “The problem is you may touch your eyes, mouth, nose, and pass the virus into your body—one of the easiest ways these germs come into our system and make us sick.” Next time, bring your own!
You shake hands
Ever wonder why Queen Elizabeth always wears gloves? It’s partly to protect her hands from germs when shaking hands with so many people. “Colds are typically caused by viruses that are spread human to human, hand to hand, air droplet to air droplet,” Dr. Mathias says. “If you need to have contact with a person who has a cold, wash your hands afterward.” Or, Dr. Nandi suggests avoiding handshakes altogether.
You don’t take probiotics
If you haven’t heard about the health benefits of probiotics, you might be missing a way to prevents colds and sickness. “Probiotics can increase the amount of healthy bacteria in the gut, and research has found an association between gut flora and immune health,” Palinski-Wade says. “Improving the balance of bacteria in the gut may aid the immune system and help to fight against infections such as colds.”
You try your friend’s meal
You share more than just meals with your live-in partner, but you should probably avoid taking a bite off a friend’s plate or a sip of their drink. “If you ever share water bottles or utensils with someone, then you’re putting yourself at risk for acquiring an illness they either have or are carrying,” Dr. Nandi says. “A good rule is: If you wouldn’t kiss them on the lips, then don’t share a drink.”
You eat at your desk
Chances are, you need these tricks to keep your office desk neat—and it’s not just that pile of paper that’s making it a mess. “A keyboard that hasn’t been cleaned for a couple of years probably has a fair amount of bread and potato chip crumbs lodged between the keys,” Dr. Nandi says. “A few blasts of compressed air will make quick work of that chore. Next, do a few passes with bleach-free disinfecting wipes.” Check out why your commute to work is making you sick.
You don’t change your clothes when you get home
It’s true: Scary germs are lurking on your clothes right now. So, it’s a good idea to change when you get home to prevent them from spreading around your house and making their way into your body. “A sick person may cough or sneeze by you, and their saliva or mucous may be on your clothes,” Dr. Nandi says. When a household member is sick, “if you change the sheets, or at least the pillowcases, that your sick partner coughed or sneezed on, you may fare better.”
You don’t get enough sun
It’s important to get enough of the sun’s vitamin D—either by 10 or 15 minutes in the sunshine or through supplements. A recent review of research found that supplementation halved the risk of respiratory infections in participants with the lowest vitamin D levels at the start. Even so, “being inside may be a factor of catching a cold as you are in contact with possibly infected people,” says Dr. Martinez-Uribe.
You forget to turn on the humidifier
“Sleeping with a dry mist humidifier in your bedroom can help increase the humidity in your room, which can provide relief to your nasal passages,” Dr. Nandi says. He also recommends drinking hot tea or water with lemon and honey, or using steam to keep your nasal passages moisturized.
You hang out with smokers
It’s no surprise that smoking isn’t good for your throat. If you’re still doing it, check out the best ways to quit smoking. But even secondhand smoke can cause irritation that could make you more vulnerable to colds, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “The smoke in cigarettes has thousands of toxins—per the CDC about 7,000—which are believed to be involved in the development of many conditions including infections,” says Dr. Martinez-Uribe. “Any degree of cigarette smoke exposure is harmful.”
You skip breakfast
One of the many negative things that can happen to your body if you skip breakfast is an increased risk of catching a cold. “Skipping breakfast may lead to erratic blood sugar throughout the day, which can increase hunger and cravings, and drain energy,” which studies show could also lead you to make poor food choices, Palinski-Wade says. “A diet lacking in nutrients over time can start to impair the immune system and make you more susceptible to illness such as colds.”
You bail on yoga class
Surprising things can happen when you start doing yoga—including that its stress-busting powers can help fight off colds. “Numerous studies have demonstrated a huge list of physiologic benefits that come from the regular practice of asana, pranayama, and meditation. Benefits include: improved respiratory function, endocrine balancing, improved immune function, increased energy levels, improved sleep, and lowered stress response,” Dr. Nandi says. “All of these will have positive effects on prevention and treatment of seasonal respiratory illness if a regular practice is established.” If you like yoga as a natural way to ward off colds, try one of these essential oils to relieve cold and flu symptoms.
- Matthew Mathias, MD, a family medicine doctor at Duke Health in Durham, NC.
- Richard Shane, PhD, behavioral sleep therapist.
- Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author Belly Fat Diet For Dummies.
- Partha Nandi, MD, a gastroenterologist in Detroit, Michigan, and author of Ask Dr. Nandi.
- Erika Martinez-Uribe, MD, Piedmont Physicians Internal Medicine in Newnan, GA.
- Journal of the American Medical Association: “Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold.”
- National Institutes of Health: “Exercise and Immunity.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others.”
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: “FDA issues final rule on safety and effectiveness of antibacterial soap.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Handwashing: Clean Hands Save Lives.”
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease.”
- Psychological Science: “Does Hugging Provide Stress-Buffering Social Support? A Study of Susceptibility to Upper Respiratory Infection and Illness.”
- Journal of Fluid Mechanics: “Violent expiratory events: on coughing and sneezing.”
- The British Medical Journal: “Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data.”
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Secondhand Smoke”
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Beneficial effect of a higher-protein breakfast on the appetitive, hormonal, and neural signal controlling energy intake regulation in overweight/obese, ‘breakfast-skipping,’ late-adolescent girls.”