The Best Way To Protect Yourself From Getting Sick At Work

From the water cooler to the telephones, the workplace can be a breeding ground for cold and flu germs. Here's how to stay well all season long.

It’s that time of year again, when cold, flu, and stomach bugs seem to fly around offices faster than in a crowded kindergarten. Make this the year you stay healthy and bug-free.

The workplace & germs

First, the bad news: No, it’s not your imagination. Office spaces are perfect incubators for illness, what with so many people touching commonly used surfaces and the lack of fresh air. Surprisingly, the main culprit is not people sneezing without covering their mouths (although it certainly doesn’t help). Charles Gerba, Ph.D. Professor, Microbiology & Environmental Sciences. Epidemiology and Biostatistics Division, University of Arizona, led a study of how germs get passed around at work and found that viruses move fast from people touching and infecting commonly shared items. “We put harmless viruses on certain participants’ hands in an office. Within four hours, they had spread to half the other workers’ hands and half the commonly touched surfaces. We were surprised how fast they move. If you sneeze in your office, only the surrounding office air gets contaminated. But if you touch the virus, you move it around the building,” he says.

Where the wild things are

Here’s a fact to turn your stomach: The cleanest thing in an office is the top of the toilet seat. “The toilet seat gets sanitized often. There are 400 times more bacteria on a desk top,” says Dr Gerba. Most cold and flu viruses can last about two to three days on surfaces; stomach viruses can last up to 30 days, Dr. Gerba reports, adding that the germiest places in an office are:

  • Phone
  • Desktop
  • Computer keyboard and mouse
  • Copy and fax machines
  • Elevator buttons
  • In the break room: Coffee pot handle, microwave buttons, sink area and table top

Reduce your risk

There is no foolproof way of avoiding all viruses, but you can lessen your chances.

  • Wash you hands often with soap and warm water. After you finish washing, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet to avoid recontamination.

  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers, says Dr. Gerba. The alcohol in sanitizers acts as an antiseptic.

  • Don’t touch your nose, eyes or mouth with your fingers or hands, this just spreads the germs. Dr. Gerba reports that the average adult does that 16 times an hour.

  • Get a flu shot. “It is the best thing you can do to prevent the flu. Effectiveness does vary but it is the best thing to lessen the risk,” says Susan J. Rehm, M.D., medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. There are now egg-free vaccines available for people who are allergic.

  • Using disinfecting wipes on commonly shared items reduces the concentration of viruses by 99%, says Dr. Gerba. Wipe down your desk and phones once a day. Wipes should contain quaternary ammonium cation (QUATS). If you are using someone else’s phone, wipe it down first.

  • Avoid handshaking and hugs. Make a joke out of it, if it’s awkward. “In honor of flu season, I’ve decided to bow instead.”

  • Don’t skip meals. “You’ll lose out on important nutrients that support a healthy immune system. Be sure to include lots of citrus fruits to boost vitamin C intake and don’t forget that some veggies like broccoli and baked potatoes are C-rich, too. A 5.3-ounce baked potato has a whopping 45% of the recommended daily allowance for vitamin C,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, author of Read It Before You Eat It and New York nutrition expert. There is a lot of debate over vitamin C and whether it can actually fend off colds. Doctors do agree that upping your C intake can help at least shorten a cold.

  • Open a window, if you can. Fresh air won’t get rid of germs on surfaces but it will help if your office air is contaminated by mold or other toxins, which can provoke allergic reactions.

  • Most important, stay home if you are sick. We all want to appear as if we are indispensible, but with today’s advanced technology, there is no excuse for coming in and infecting everyone. You can easily commute from home. “If you are running a fever, or are so ill that you would be just a mass of protoplasm seated upright at the computer, do your office mates a favor and remain home,” says Dr. Rehm.

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