How can you protect yourself from respiratory infections?

Cold and flu viruses are spread through droplets: When someone who is infected coughs or sneezes, droplets containing the viruses are released into the air. The viruses also get onto your hands or the tissue when you blow your nose.

These viruses can then pass to other people or objects. They are easily spread from person to person wherever a lot of people touch the same objects, like doorknobs or handrails on the subway or a bus. The viruses are also more likely to spread if people come into direct contact with each other, for instance by shaking hands or hugging.

One of the most effective things you can do to protect yourself and others from these viruses is stop them from spreading. More specifically:

  • Wash your hands and your children's hands frequently. Because children don’t pay as much attention to personal hygiene and because their isn’t yet fully developed, they’re more likely to become infected – and to pass the on. Normal soap is good enough. There’s no proof that special antibacterial or antiviral soaps are better. But when you wash your hands, it’s important to wash them thoroughly with soap for at least 20 seconds and then rinse them under running water. The temperature of the water isn’t as important as washing your hands long enough.
  • Don't touch your face with your hands. You are likely to become infected if you touch your mouth or nose with your hands after touching something that has germs on it.
  • Do not drink out of cups or bottles that others have used.


Protect others

If you are ill yourself, you can do the following things to help protect others:

  • Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, preferably with a paper tissue.
  • Throw away used tissues immediately and do not leave them lying around. Wash your hands thoroughly after blowing your nose. Use disposable paper tissues.
  • Avoid shaking hands with other people, or hugging or kissing other people.

Andreae S, Avelini P, Berg M, Blank I, Burk A. Lexikon der Krankheiten und Untersuchungen. Stuttgart: Thieme; 2008.

Jefferson T, Del Mar CB, Dooley L, Ferroni E, Al-Ansary LA, Bawazeer GA et al. Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2011; (7): CD006207.

Kasper DL, Fauci AS, Hauser SL, Longo DL, Jameson JL, Loscalzo J. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2015.

Pschyrembel. Klinisches Wörterbuch. Berlin: De Gruyter; 2017.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Updated on November 7, 2019
Next planned update: 2022

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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