By Hallie Levine Sklar
Every 32 seconds someone in the U.S. catches a cold. That means the highly contagious virus is literally everywhere -- from doorknobs to elevator buttons to the handle on your cart in the supermarket, where it can live for hours, says Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of the respiratory care department at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City and author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds & Flu. We know you've heard a million and one tips for avoiding these nasty germs -- the key is figuring out what works and what is a waste of time. Here, straight from the medical lab, healthy advice you can really trust.
#1: Drink Hot Tea
A Harvard study shows that sipping tea may boost your body's defenses against infection. Researchers discovered that the blood cells in tea drinkers' immune systems responded five times more efficiently to germs than the blood cells of coffee drinkers. That's because tea contains a potent class of chemicals called catechins, which may spur your system to fight viruses, says Dr. Kulze. White tea is best: A Pace University study found that it was the most effective at fending off germs.
#2: Gargle with Water
A recent Japanese study found that people who gargled with water three times a day had 36 percent fewer colds than those who didn't gargle at all and had fewer colds than those who used an antiseptic mouth rinse. "Gargling can help remove mucus that drains from your sinuses down to your throat, which is a spot where bad bugs love to hang out," explains Ann Kulze, MD, an internist in Charleston, South Carolina. "It also helps moisturize the cells that line the back of your throat; they tend to dry out in the winter, making them less effective in preventing viruses from entering your respiratory tract." Dr. Kulze's advice: Gargle with water before brushing your teeth in the morning, after you eat lunch, and at night.
#3: Use Your Own Pen/Pencil
At stores, restaurants, the gym, and the doctor's office, pull out your own ballpoint to sign credit slips and check-in sheets. "During the flu season, pens are passed to dozens of people each day, so they're a superb carrier of cold viruses," says Dr. Schachter. "When you handle them, you can transmit the virus to your fingers, and when you touch your face, eyes, or nose, it goes directly into your mucosal tissues."
Related 12 Germ Hot-Spots in Your Home
#4: Get Moving
A study conducted at the University of South Carolina found that people who were the most physically active daily, whether through sports, exercise, or chores such as shoveling snow, were 20 percent to 30 percent less likely to develop colds than couch potatoes were.
#5: Get a Flu Shot
Influenza weakens your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds. "Every year, I see women who didn't get the shot come down with the flu and then suffer cold after cold the rest of the season because their immune system is wiped out," says Steven Lamm, MD, clinical assistant professor of medicine at New York University in New York City. It's still not too late to get the vaccine -- doctors say supplies should be available until March.
Related: 6 Smart Snacks to Feed Your Cold
#6: Don't Smoke
It destroys the cilia -- little hairlike fibers inside the nose and lungs -- which help keep germs out, explains Dr. Lamm. Exposure to secondhand smoke may do the same, so if your partner smokes, encourage him to quit or insist that he light up outside.
#7: Wash Your Hands the Right Way
There is a trick to killing germs -- and 84 percent of us don't know it. To wash up correctly, wet your hands, lather the soap and then scrub, including between your fingers and under your nails for 15 seconds. Rinse using lukewarm -- not hot -- water; dry.
#8: Eat Breakfast
Cereal eaters are less likely to catch respiratory illnesses and colds than those who skip breakfast, according to studies done at Cardiff University in Wales. One possible explanation: Many breakfast foods are now fortified with micronutrients, which have been linked to a reduced risk of infection, explains study author Andy Smith, PhD, a psychologist.
Related: Breakfast Recipes for Every Type of Morning
More from FITNESS Magazine:
By Hallie Levine Sklar