Reducing Your Risk of Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)

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:

  • Washing your hands thoroughly (15 to 20 seconds) with soap and water
  • Avoiding hand-to-hand passage of germs and droplet sprays from sneezing and coughing
  • Using alcohol-based hand gels when washing is not possible

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:

  • Flu shot—This is for people aged 6 months and older. The shot is made from an inactivated, killed virus. It is given by injection, usually into the arm.
  • Nasal spray flu vaccine—This is approved for healthy people aged 2 to 49 years who are not pregnant. It is made from live, weakened flu viruses. Certain people, like those with weakened immune systems, should get the flu shot instead of the nasal spray. Talk to your doctor about which one is right for you. Note: The CDC concluded that the nasal spray flu vaccine should not be used for the 2017-2018 flu season.

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:

  • Are exposed to the flu, and
  • Are at high risk of having complications

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.

Alternative Treatments

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:

  • Zinc—Taking a daily zinc supplement may reduce your risk of getting sick.
  • Andrographis (also called "Indian echinacea")—This herb may increase your resistance to colds.
  • Vitamin C—A daily dose of this vitamin may also help you to stay healthy.

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.



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Last reviewed September 2018 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated: 11/11/2020

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