Germ-Proof Your Commute
8 ways to protect yourself from infectious bugs on buses, trains and subways
Traveling by public transportation may be convenient and environmentally smart — but during cold and flu season, a crowded bus or train can be a germaphobe’s worst nightmare. Short of donning a hazmat suit, how can you keep from getting sick when you commute? Practice these smart strategies.
1. Get vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that virtually everyone over 6 months old get a flu vaccine. (There are a few exceptions, so check with your doctor.) The vaccine doesn’t guarantee you won’t get the flu, but it can dramatically reduce your risk. And while it’s best to get the vaccine early in the flu season (which can run from October to May), getting it later is still worthwhile. Note that it takes about two weeks for the full effect to kick in.
2. Live healthy. A flu shot will help protect you from the flu, but there’s no such thing as a vaccine for the common cold. You can lower your chances of getting sick by keeping your immune system strong. Get plenty of sleep, stay active and eat nutrient-rich foods.
3. Pack reinforcements. Stock your purse or briefcase with tissues (use them if you have to grab a pole) and sanitizing gel or wipes for your hands. Don’t rely on your gloves; they’re just as easily contaminated as your hands but they aren’t as easy to sanitize. No need to wear a surgical mask — there’s no good scientific evidence they provide much protection.
4. Step to the rear. Germs are less likely to lurk where people are less likely to be. Bus passengers tend to fill up the front seats first, so head to the back. On trains and subways, seek a spot in one of the least-crowded cars.
5. Take a seat. Studies suggest germs generally live longer on stainless steel and hard plastic surfaces than fabric. So if you have a choice, sit down so you can be hands-free rather than standing and holding onto the subway pole or the side of a seat on the bus. If you must touch a potentially germy surface, wipe it with an alcohol wipe first (or use those tissues).
6. Steer clear of snifflers, sneezers and coughers. Try not to sit or stand close to someone who’s obviously sick. If you wind up squished in beside a person with a runny nose or hacking cough, tactfully angle your body away from her. What about a seat mate who isn’t bothering to cover her mouth when she coughs or sneezes? Plant a smile on your face, hand her a tissue and ask, “Would this help?”
“That will cut your risk of getting sick and also give the other passenger the message that she shouldn’t broadcast her illness,” says William Schaffner, MD, infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
7. Bury your head in a book. In other words, practice “social distancing,” the public health term for putting space between you and potentially contagious others. If you’re worried about catching something, your commute is probably not the time to start a conversation with strangers. One study found that a sick person who chats quietly for five minutes releases just as many cold germs as he would by coughing.
8. Keep your hands clean. Use a sanitizing wipe or gel after shaking hands with someone or touching a potentially contaminated surface (think escalator and stair railings and ticket vending machines in addition to poles and seats), advises Schaffner. It’s especially important to do this before you touch your nose, eyes or mouth. As soon as you get home or to your office, thoroughly scrub your hands with soap and water.