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Expert Q&A

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Why do I get colds despite constant hand washing?

Asked by Stephanie Corwin, Birmingham, Alabama

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I am a constant handwasher, user of antibacterial wipes, alcohol gels and even open doors with a tissue or my shirt but still come down with colds. Am I too clean or just unlucky?

Expert Bio Picture

Living Well Expert Dr. Jennifer Shu Pediatrician,
Children's Medical Group

Expert Answer:

Washing hands frequently and avoiding contact with surfaces that could harbor germs are some great first steps to staying healthy. These habits can help remove viruses and bacteria before they have a chance to enter your body. Also, it's normal to get several colds a year. Kids average up to about 10 per year; adults tend to get fewer colds because their immune systems are more mature and they tend to have better hygiene. Here are some things you can do to stay as healthy as possible:

Keep clean. Make sure you wash your hands for at least 20 to 30 seconds to remove any illness-causing germs. Be sure to wash hands whenever they look dirty, after you come in from outdoors, after using the bathroom, and before eating. Avoid people who are coughing or sneezing, as they can spray and spread cold viruses.

Get enough sleep. Adults generally need about 8 hours; teens should get at least 9, and younger kids need 10 to 11 hours or more. Sleep deprivation can affect your body's immune system and make it more prone to colds and other infections.

Eat a healthy diet. Choosing nutrient-rich foods is a good idea for many reasons, including maintaining a healthy weight, providing energy throughout the day, as well as to keep your immune system functioning properly. You can get a wide range of immune-boosting nutrients by sticking with lean meats, fish or other proteins; whole grains; low-fat dairy products; fruits; and vegetables. Use oils and other fats sparingly, and limit added sugars in your food and beverages.

Update your immunizations. The influenza shot or nasal spray can protect against the strains included in the yearly vaccine. Adults and older children can also try to prevent whooping cough (pertussis) with the Tdap vaccine (which also prevents tetanus). Whooping cough can cause lingering cold symptoms for weeks in teens and adults; left untreated, it can also spread to infants and make them very sick. Adults over 65 or who have certain medical conditions may also benefit from a vaccine against pneumococcus, which can cause bacterial infections such as pneumonia.

Exercise. Regular, moderate exercise can increase the cells that fight viruses and bacteria so try to include about 30 minutes of physical activity about 3 to 4 days a week. Beware, however, that too much of a good thing can have the opposite effect; over-exertion (such as intense exercising for longer than 90 minutes at a time) can reduce immune function for a few days so be sure to include rest and recovery periods in any strenuous training program.

Take good care of yourself. Don't go to work or school if you have a fever or feel very sick; you need time to recover and probably won't be able to concentrate well anyway. Plus, you could get other people sick. Emotional stress can also impair your immune system so do what you can to decrease stress, depression, or anxiety in your life and seek professional help if needed.

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