Reducing Your Risk of Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)
by Ricker Polsdorfer, MD
There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of catching a cold or influenza. They include the following:
Wash Your Hands Often
Hand washing is one of the most effective ways to reduce your risk of getting a cold or the flu. Wash your hands often, especially when you come in contact with someone who is sick. Even if someone in your house has the flu, you can reduce your risk of getting sick by washing your hands.
Effective ways to prevent respiratory infections include:
Wear a Face Mask
If you have to be in close contact with a sick person, wear a face mask or a disposable respirator. Wearing a face mask and washing your hands can help to reduce your risk of getting the flu.
Do Not Share Items
Do not share drinks or personal items.
Keep Your Hands Away From Your Face
Do not bite your nails or put your hands near your eyes, mouth, or nose.
Avoid Crowds During Influenza Season
This may not be a very practical suggestion for everyone. However, if you are at high risk of catching a cold or influenza or are at risk for developing complications from these infections, try to avoid crowded areas or people who are obviously sick during the flu season.
Get a Flu Vaccine
Each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) tries to determine which strains of the influenza virus will be most dangerous in the upcoming influenza season. Vaccines are developed for these strains. Flu vaccines are available and recommended for most people aged 6 months and older.
There is a vaccine against the avian flu, but it is not available to the general public.
Seasonal Flu Vaccine
The seasonal flu vaccine has been associated with fewer hospitalizations and deaths from influenza or pneumonia among the elderly living in a community. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that anyone aged 6 months and older should get a yearly flu vaccine. Children aged 6 months to 8 years will need 2 doses of the vaccine to help build immunity to the virus when getting vaccinated for the first time.
There are two types of seasonal flu vaccines:
A possible side effect is a mild "flu-like" reaction, including fever, aches, and fatigue. Up to 5% of people experience these symptoms after getting the seasonal influenza vaccine.
Flu vaccines are available at doctors' offices, hospitals, local public health offices, and at some workplaces, stores, and shopping malls.
Most people do not need to take antiviral medicines. You may want to talk to your doctor about taking these medicines to lower your risk of getting the flu if you:
If you have the flu and live with someone who is at risk for complications (for example, elderly, babies, someone with cancer), that person may need to take antiviral medicines to prevent getting the flu from you. Remember that these medicines are not a substitute for getting vaccinated. Vaccination is still the best way to prevent the flu.
There are a number of alternative treatments that have been studied as potential ways to prevent colds and the flu. Some that may have protective benefits include:
While echinacea is often labeled as a "cold fighter," the overall evidence is not very strong to support this herb's preventive effects.
Remember to talk to your doctor before taking any herbs or supplements. They can interact with other medicines you are taking or worsen a condition that you have.
Antiviral treatment for influenza prophylaxis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dyname.... Updated October 27, 2016. Accessed August 15, 2017.
Asthma information for patients and parents of patients. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/H1N1flu/asthma.htm. Accessed August 15, 2017.
Colds and flus. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Updated April 24, 2017. Accessed August 15, 2017.
Influenza in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/influenza-in-adults. Updated September 27, 2016. Accessed August 15, 2017.
Influenza in children. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/influenza-in-children. Updated September 27, 2016. Accessed August 15, 2017.
Key facts about seasonal flu vaccine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/FLU/protect/keyfacts.htm. Updated March 31, 2017. Accessed August 15, 2017.
Nichol KL, Nordin JD, Nelson DB, Mullooly JP, Hak E. Effectiveness of influenza vaccine in the community-dwelling elderly. N Engl J Med. 2007;357(14):1373-1381.
Upper respiratory infection (URI) in adults and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dyname.... Updated April 10, 2017. Accessed August 15, 2017.
What you should know about flu antiviral drugs. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/antivirals/whatyoushould.htm. Updated January 5, 2017. Accessed August 15, 2017.
3/2/2007 DynaMed Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.... Belshe RB, Edwards KM, et al. Live attenuated versus inactivated influenza vaccine in infants and young children. N Engl J Med. 2007;356(7):685-696.
11/9/2009 DynaMed Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com/condition/influenza-in-adults: Cowling BJ, Chan KH, et al. Facemasks and hand hygiene to prevent influenza transmission in households: a cluster randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 2009;151(7):437-446.
4/16/2010 DynaMed Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com/condition/influenza-in-adults: Aiello AE, Murray GF, et al. Mask use, hand hygiene, and seasonal influenza-like illness among young adults: a randomized intervention trial. J Infect Dis. 2010;201(4):491-498.
2/25/2011 DynaMed Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dyname...: Sing M, Das R. Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;(2):CD001364.
Last reviewed September 2018 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated: 11/11/2020
EBSCO Information Services is fully accredited by URAC. URAC is an independent, nonprofit health care accrediting organization dedicated to promoting health care quality through accreditation, certification and commendation.
This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.
To send comments or feedback to our Editorial Team regarding the content please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our Health Library Support team will respond to your email request within 2 business days.
All rights reserved.