Feeling sick? How to keep your germs from spreading during cold and flu season

If you’re sick with the cold or flu, one bit of advice from doctors is to avoid other people — but for how long?

WTOP talked with Dr. Glenn Wortmann, director of Infectious Diseases at MedStar Washington Hospital Center about best practices if you don’t feel well or want to try to avoid getting sick.

It doesn’t matter which winter ailment you have.

“If you have a runny nose, cough, fever, you should just consider yourself as being infectious to others,” Wortmann said.

How long are you contagious?

“Unfortunately, about a day before you start feeling sick, you start becoming contagious to others, which is difficult because you don’t know you’re sick,” Wortmann said.

Wortmann said the window for when you’re most at risk of infecting others is wide open when you feel worst and begins closing as your ailment lingers.

“The sicker you get, the more contagious you are. So the day before you get sick, although you’re contagious, you’re not that contagious,” Wortmann said. “Usually after about five days, you’ll won’t be shedding the virus anymore. Each day you’ll be shedding less and less virus and by day five, it’s dropped down to pretty low levels.”

In addition to avoiding people, Wortmann advises frequent hand washing and covering coughs and sneezes.

You know not to cough into your hands, right?

“If you’re going to cough or sneeze, put your elbow across your mouth, (don’t do it into) your hands to cut down the distribution of droplets,” Wortmann advised.

How far is far enough to avoid potentially infected flying droplets?

“In general, if you can get more than five or six feet away, the risk of catching anything is dropped; it would be less,” Wortmann said.

If you get sick, how can you self-medicate best?

“Most people have had the flu or been sick every winter, since they were little and they kind of know what works for them,” Wortmann said. “So, if they feel that a bath works for them, go ahead and take a bath. If they feel that cold compresses work for them, go ahead and do that. But in general, maintaining good hydration by drinking fluids, try and eat if you can, and get as much rest as you can.”

Wortmann also said that you can take something like Tylenol for fever and body aches.

At risk groups may need to take extra precautions

“If you’re in a high risk of complications from flu, so if you’re pregnant, if you’re elderly, or if you have serious medical conditions, you should see your provider because there are medications that can be given for the flu, which can decrease the risk of serious complications,” Wortmann said.

A last bit of advice: Get a flu shot.

“It’s not too late to get vaccinated. Flu season has kicked off. It’s in the high rates in the southern parts of the U.S. I expect it’ll come up to us in the next month or so. So it’s not too late to get vaccinated.”

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