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Trying Not to Get Sick? Science Says You’re Probably Doing It Wrong

Cold and flu viruses transfer in very different ways than we think

Don't worry, we've got you covered. (AnnaNahabed / iStock)
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It’s that time of year again: coughing, wheezy, sticky people all around you, and that dread in the pit of your stomach that you’re about to get sick. What do you do? Conventional wisdom says that to avoid spreading colds or the flu, you should wash your hands frequently—ideally using antibacterial soap—and cover your mouth when you cough. 

But it turns out that sometimes, conventional wisdom is just wrong (sorry about that, mom!). We pored through scientific studies and talked to medical experts to find that some of these oft-repeated tips don't tell the whole story—while others might actually be harmful. Here's the truth about colds and the flu. (Spoiler: You should still cover your mouth when you cough.) 

2. Surgical masks won’t protect you.

You may be surprised to learn that those people wearing slightly-dystopian surgical masks on the subway aren't protecting themselves: they’re protecting you. According to the Centers for Disease Control, surgical masks can help stop you from spreading your flu to others, by catching most of the fine particles you breathe out. However, they can’t always stop a mask-wearer from getting sick themselves, which is why the CDC doesn't recommend them for the general population. Because they're not airtight, they don't catch all the particles in the air that might contain viruses.

While public health experts know a fair amount about how flu spreads from person to person, it isn’t as clear how these diseases spread across cities or countries, says Rumi Chunara, an assistant professor in computer science and engineering and global public health at New York University. Chunara is pioneering research into this complicated health phenomenon by turning to an unlikely partner: snot samples. Her project, “Go Viral,” has been collecting nasal samples from Americans since 2013 and is still going strong. Study participants get a kit with a special Q-tip, a "preservation tube" and a mailing label. (Sign up here!)

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