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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)

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.) 

6. We're closer than ever to a universal flu vaccine.

Every year, we make a new flu vaccine by studying the strains present in the Southern Hemisphere during their winter. Scientists are essentially making an educated prediction as to what this year’s strain will be—which is why some years the vaccine isn't as effective.

But that may be about to change. Earlier this year researchers announced that they had designed—but not yet created—a vaccine that covers 95 percent of U.S. flu strains and another that works on 88 percent of worldwide strains. Also this year, the National Institutes of Health researchers identified three types of antibodies that, in vitro, neutralized "diverse subtypes" of flu viruses.

"It's going to happen," Swartzberg says. Until then, though: Cover your mouth when you sneeze, yell or breathe.


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