Amanda MacMillan, SELF magazine
Happy New Year, SELF readers! Here's hoping you're all starting 2013 out on a healthy and happy note. Of course, that's not the case for everyone: Cold and flu season usually peaks in January or February, and this year it's already off to a doozy. And my Twitter inbox has been flooded with questions about hand sanitizers and sprays--and if they really work in warding off winter illness.
To get the real scoop on all of these OTC sprays, sanitizers and antiseptics, I talked to Nathan Litman, M.D., a cold and flu expert at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. Here's his take on a few of the products on shelves today--and his best advice for your healthiest year ever.
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Thumbs Up: Alcohol-Based Sanitizers
One of the best ways you can prevent cold and flu is to wash your hands frequently throughout the day, says Litman. Regular soap and water work just fine--but if you're not near a sink, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good alternative. (Purell's new product, Purell Advanced, has been formulated to pack the biggest germ-killing punch per squirt, and it also includes skin conditioners to keep your hands from drying out.)
Thumbs Down: Oral or Nasal Antiseptics
You know those sprays and swabs that are supposed to boost immunity and kill germs in your mouth/throat/nose? Chances are they've got no good evidence to back up those claims. "There's nothing over-the-counter that has been shown to work," says Litman. "And there's the potential to alter the normal bacteria or change the membranes in your sinuses, which might even increase your susceptibility to illness." Don't be fooled by marketing claims, he says, and most definitely don't waste your money.
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Meh: Disinfectant Sprays and Wipes
I have a friend who follows his girlfriend around their apartment with a container of Lysol whenever she's sick, determined to keep himself from catching her cold. Spraying down high-traffic surfaces like doorknobs and computer keyboards is not a bad idea, says Litman, but it's only a temporary solution. "The next time she touches something, the germs go right back," he says. "The more appropriate technique to avoid transmission would be keeping yourself clean, which goes back to regular hand washing."
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Tried and True: Flu Shots
Along with scrubbing regularly, the single biggest thing you can do to protect yourself is to get a flu shot, says Litman--and it's certainly not too late if you haven't already done so. "Even if you've already been sick this season, there may be different strains of the flu virus that you are still at risk for," he adds. It can take 10 days to two weeks for the vaccine to take effect, but with the end of flu season still months away, it's still a smart bet.
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