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2 Simple Steps to Stop the Spread of Workplace Viruses

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Now that it is flu season, cold and flu viruses are spreading like wildfire. Stop the progression of winter viruses by employing these two simple steps.

Now that flu season is in full swing, one of the biggest thoughts on everyone’s mind is how to prevent the spread of infection at home, school, and work. In each environment, the procedure to stop the spread of flu and cold viruses are the same. Children are more likely to pass viruses amongst each other, due to less frequent hand washing, reduced immunity, and closer contact; but adults can easily pass sickness from person to person in a workplace environment.

In fact, once an office illness starts spreading, it can quickly move from person to person until the entire office is sick. A 2013 study from the University of Pittsburgh simulated the spread of a flu outbreak to see what the infection rate from the workplace might be. According to the study results, only about 11 percent of flu viruses are spread through the workplace, but once illness strikes at the office, it is hard to keep it from spreading.

If you want to reduce your chances of getting sick at work, employ the following two strategies to cut down on your risk of infections.

Stop the Spread of Germs

One of the best ways to stop the cold and flu in the workplace is to discourage the spread of germs. While you can’t exactly stop all germs from floating around at work, there are a few steps you can take to help prevent them from spreading from actions that you take. The following 6 methods can help you cut down on the spread of cold and flu viruses while you work.

Hand Washing

Simple hand washing is the most effective way to stop the spread of viruses. According to the CDC, only about 5 percent of people do it right, which is a shame, because it is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of illness. In fact, up to 69 percent of men and 35 percent of women don’t even wash their hands at all after using a public restroom. Studies conducted by the CDC have shown that proper hand washing can cut down on the spread of diarrhea viruses by up to 56 percent (in those with weakened immune systems) and cuts down on the spread of cold and flu infections by about 21 percent. The proper way to wash your hands is to use the hottest water you can stand, use a soapy lather, and rub your hands vigorously together for about 30 seconds. Pay special attention to under your fingernails, the backs of your hands, and between your fingers.

Avoid Touching Your Face

According to a 2008 study from the University of California, in an office environment, individuals touch their faces an average of 15 times an hour (some participants touched their faces around 47 times an hour). Viruses spread quickly from hand-to-face contact. If you avoid touching your face at the office, you are less likely to spread illnesses and avoid the risk of getting sick. In a study of adults with colds, up to 90 percent of study participants had the cold virus on their hands. This indicates that the hands are one of the fastest ways to spread cold germs from one person to another. After touching a person’s hands, be particularly careful not to touch your own face until you can wash your hands properly.

Stay Home If Sick

If you do get sick, you can help prevent the spread of viruses by staying home. In the same study from the University of Pittsburgh simulating flu conditions in the workplace, it was found that when participants stayed home while sick, the spread of colds and the flu went down by about 6 percent. If a company offered specific “flu days” with paid time off, the infection rate was reduced by an additional 25 percent (with one flu day) or 39 percent (with two flu days). By staying home while sick, and encouraging others to stay home if they are sick, it is possible to cut down significantly on office-spread illnesses.

Keep to Yourself

Avoiding close contact with others is a proven method to reduce the spread of viruses. Most viruses are spread through contact with contaminated surfaces or from person-to-person. If someone sneezes, coughs, or spits on you, your risk of infection skyrockets. You can help promote health by avoiding direct contact with sick people at work. If you do have to touch someone with a cold or the flu, wash your hands as soon as possible after the contact to remove the virus from your body before it spreads. Taking a shower each night may also help remove viruses from your skin.

Don’t Share Personal Items

Personal items, such as pens, staplers, phones, keyboards, and even touch screens can harbor viruses for 48 hours (or more in some cases). This means that any personal item from a sick person (even if they do not yet realize they are sick) can infect someone else for about two days after the person touches the object. One of the easiest ways to prevent the spread of flu viruses at the office is to keep personal items personal. Do not share personal items with coworkers. Certain habits encourage the spread of illness more than others, like the habit of putting pens and pencils in the mouth or licking a thumb to clean a smudge from a surface.

Don’t Eat At Your Desk

Microbiologists recommend that people who work in an office don’t eat at their desks. In addition to spreading mold bacteria and encouraging pests, eating at your desk can also be bad for your health. Office surfaces like the keyboard and phone contain up to 400 times more viruses and bacteria than a toilet seat (mostly because toilet seats are cleaned regularly). If you eat at your desk, you are more likely to ingest some of these lingering viruses, which can make it easier for you to get sick.

Build Your Immune System

The next step to fighting off workplace infections is by building your immune system. You can do this in a variety of ways. While many experts recommend getting a flu shot to help fight off flu viruses, in most cases, the flu vaccine is only ever about 70 percent effective. A study from the CDC of the 2012-2013 flu vaccine showed it was between 50 and 60 percent effective at preventing the flu. However, there are other things you can do to help stop the spread of work-based illnesses naturally, in addition to the flu vaccine or instead of it. Try these immune-system boosting activities to reduce your chances of getting sick at the office this year.


Sleep may be the most effective protection you can have against viruses. One study published in the journal Regional Immunology in 1989 looked at how sleep affected the spread of the flu virus. Researchers looked at two groups of mice. One group was given a flu vaccine, while one was not. Researchers injected each group with the flu virus one week later. The researchers then deprived some of the mice in both groups of sleep for 7 hours. Three days later, vaccinated mice that had no sleep were infected with the virus in the same levels as if they remained unvaccinated. Researchers concluded that sleep-deprivation lowers the immune response to viruses, particularly in vaccinated individuals; and that sleep-deprivation may lower levels of immunoglobulin antibodies, IgG and IgA.

What does this mean for you? Get enough rest each day to help fight off infections. The National Sleep Foundation recommends getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night for maximum health.

Avoid Sugary Snacks

Can eating sugar lower your immune system response? There is some scientific evidence that it might. The most famous study on sugar and the immune system was conducted in 1973 and published in “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” In the study, participants were fed different foods after an overnight fast. Participants were given food from starch, glucose, fructose, sucrose, honey or orange juice.

Researchers looked at the bacteria levels in the blood after up to 5 hours after eating the food. The researchers found that everything but starch reduced the ability of immune cells to destroy bacteria. Basically, sugar slows down the immune response of white blood cells. Eating sugar on a regular basis could suppress your immune system and make it easier to get sick. Therefore, common office snacks like donuts, candy, and sugary drinks should be avoided to stop the spread of viruses. Additionally, removing empty carbohydrates from the diet will allow you to substitute with healthier foods, which will provide vitamins and minerals that will boost the immune system rather than slow it down.

Sugary Snacks to Avoid at Work
  • Soda
  • Desserts 
  • Energy drinks
  • Juice
  • Donuts
  • Candy


Eating better is one of the best ways to boost the immune system. According to Harvard University, reduced levels of folate, copper, iron, zinc, selenium, and vitamins B6, A, C, D, and E reduce immune system effectiveness in animals (and probably people, too). If you want to improve your immune system, make sure you are eating healthy sources of these nutrients.

Immune Boosting Foods
  • Vitamin A: Sweet potatoes, liver, carrots, spinach, dairy products
  • Vitamin B6: Liver, fish, chickpeas, potatoes, fish, chicken 
  • Vitamin C: Red peppers, oranges, broccoli, strawberries
  • Vitamin E: Wheat germ, almonds, sunflowers, peanuts, corn, broccoli
  • Zinc: Oysters, beef, chicken, lobster, cheese, peas 
  • Iron: Oatmeal, lentils, beans, spinach
  • Selenium: Brazil nuts, tuna, beef, ham, shrimp
  • Copper: Asparagus, liver, sesame seeds, cashews, lentils
  • Folate: Liver, spinach, black-eyed peas, asparagus, lettuce
  • Vitamin D: Cod liver oil, salmon, tuna, milk, and dairy products


During the winter, supplementing with extra vitamins and minerals is a good idea to help stop the spread of illness when people are confined to close quarters. Natural exposure to vitamin D is also less in the winter because fewer people get out and about in the sunlight. Luckily, there are many supplements that are scientifically proven to help improve your immune system from the inside out. Try the following supplements to give your immune system a boost this winter:

Elderberry: The 1996 book, “Herbal Medicines: A Guide for Health Care Professionals,” states that elderberry is highly effective at boosting the immune system. A 2001 study conducted by Hadassah University Hospital showed that supplementing with elderberry “significantly increased” immune system function.

Echinacea: A 1997 study conducted by Irvine Medical Center indicated that supplementing with Echinacea and ginger improved cellular immune function in individuals with healthy immune systems and in weakened immune systems.

Spirulina: The University of Maryland states that Spirulina (a type of blue-green algae) was proven to improve the immune system of a variety of animals during testing, but no in-depth trials have been conducted on humans as of yet.

Goldenseal: The University of Maryland says that goldenseal is a natural antibacterial, and was shown in one study to increase white blood cell count when taken as a supplement.

Don’t Smoke

Smoking can have devastating effects on the immune system. One 2002 study published in “Nature Reviews,” found that cigarette smoking increases damaging enzymes on the lungs by 7 times. The lungs are responsible for clearing many invading viruses and bacteria through the respiratory system, and smoking interferes with the normal immune function in the lungs. Smoking also reduces the effects of T cells and B cells (which are necessary for effective immune system function). Not smoking and avoiding second-hand smoke are the best ways to protect your health from the adverse effects of smoking.

Reduce Stress

Several studies have shown that various types of stress can place stress on the immune system and cause it to react poorly to invading pathogens. According to The Mayo Clinic, one of the most damaging types of stress on the immune system is chronic stress. Chronic stress leads to increased levels of the hormone Cortisol in the blood, which leads to complications like more sugar in the blood, digestion suppression, and mood swings. Chronic stress also negatively impacts the immune system, leaving your body open to infection. Reducing your stress levels allows your body to reset and regulate hormone levels, leading to a healthier body overall.

Stress-Reducing Techniques 
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Conscious relaxation
  • Hot showers or baths
  • Massage

What About Hand Sanitizer?

In recent years, the use of hand sanitizers has become wildly popular to stop the spread of infection at home, on-the-go, in the office, and in schools. However, there has been some question whether the use of hand sanitizers helps prevent illness, spreads more illness, or leads to the creation of superbugs. According to microbiologists, if a hand sanitizer is formulated with alcohol, it kills the bacteria outright. This makes it impossible for the bacteria to gain resistance to the alcohol because they do not fight against the bacteria the same way that an antibiotic would. You can think of it something like this: Alcohol is like a bomb dropped onto bacteria. There is nothing to fight, so the bacteria just die. Antibiotics, however, are like hand-to-hand combat. If you don’t kill all of your enemies, the ones that remain learn from the fight and grow stronger for the next battle.

So, hand sanitizers that contain alcohol are effective at killing bacteria and viruses without creating superbugs. However, the second kind of hand sanitizer, the one that uses the chemical Triclosan, is an antibiotic, which could lead to the spread of stronger bacteria. If you are going to use a hand sanitizer, make sure it is an alcohol-based sanitizer.

The CDC has conducted many studies that prove that hand sanitizers are only effective with concentrations of alcohol at 60 percent or higher. Formulations with lower concentrations of alcohol are much less effective than hand washing. Hand sanitizer is also not effective if used on actually dirty hands. If there is dirt in the way, the sanitizer cannot remove all pathogens.

A 2012 study from the University of Virginia showed that the use of hand sanitizers may not make all that much difference in how often a person gets sick. The study looked at 200 people, 100 of which who used hand sanitizers and 100 who didn’t. Those who used sanitizers saw a 42 percent infection rate. Those who didn’t use sanitizers saw a 51 percent infection rate. The sanitizer group did have a 9 percent lower rate of infection, but the results were not as drastic as the researchers had thought to find.

Another possible issue with hand sanitizers is the fact that they kill all bacteria. Some bacteria is beneficial, and some bacteria on the skin can fight off invading bacteria and viruses. Killing off all bacteria on the skin could make it easier for viruses to pass from the skin to the mouth, nose, or eyes, where they can quickly spread and cause infection.

Stopping Viruses at Work

Remaining healthy when in close quarters with many other people can be a challenge. However, if you follow the steps outlined above- including preventing the spread of illness and boosting your natural immunity- you will probably find that you see fewer cold and flu attacks than before. Your body is designed to fight off invaders, but it is much easier if you arm your body with the proper tools and avoid going into situations that spread cold and flu viruses.





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