Household Items That Raise Your Risk for Cold and Flu

You may worry about catching a cold on an airplane or in an elevator full of snifflers. But what about in your own house? Here are the spots in your home where cold and flu viruses can hide—along with expert advice on how to outsmart them.

Light switches and doorknobs

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Cold and flu viruses most often travel from person to person in airborne droplets of moisture expelled when someone sick exhales, talks, coughs, or sneezes. But the germs are also spread by contact—both with infected people and with objects they’ve touched. “When a household member is sick with cold or flu, the whole household likely is contaminated,” says Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Common spots for viruses to hide are those that are touched often and rarely cleaned, such as door handles and light switches, according to a 2007 study in the Journal of Medical Virology. Consider wiping down high-touch surfaces around the house with a disinfectant every day when someone in the house is sick. “Cleaning areas that are common touch surfaces with disinfectant wipes or soap can diminish chances of infection,” says Dr. Adalja. Check out these 12 everyday items that are dirtier than your toilet seat.

Your housemates

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You’re much more likely to catch a cold or flu directly from close contact with a friend or family member than you are a contaminated object, says Dr. Adalja. Virus-filled droplets of moisture can be expelled when someone simply exhales, talks, or laughs—not just when he or she coughs or sneezes. “Transmission is primarily from person to person; surfaces play a much smaller role,” he explains. Holding hands or snuggling is risky too, since rhinoviruses can live on hands for at least an hour, and other respiratory viruses can survive on clothes for up to 45 minutes. So as much as you can, avoid close contact with friends and family members who have a cold or flu.

Coffee mugs and drinking glasses

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You know not to drink out of the same cup as a sick spouse or roommate. But do you wash your hands after tidying up and carrying that person’s cup to the sink? You should: A classic study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that half the people who touched coffee-cup handles that were previously handled by people with colds came down with the sniffles themselves. Washing your hands with soap and water is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick, according to the CDC. Be sure to wash for at least 20 seconds—long enough to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Avoid making these 10 handwashing mistakes.

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