Six ways to avoid bugs this winter

It can sometimes feel that you’re surrounded by sniffs and coughs, so how can you avoid catching all the bugs that are going around? By Siân Phillips for Benenden

Benenden

Did you know a sneeze can travel 30 metres or that germs from your toilet can reach your toothbrush when you flush?

‘There are more bacteria on the surface of our skin than there are skin cells,’ says Heather Leslie, director of infection prevention and control at Benenden Hospital. But some simple hygiene measures can reduce our risk of colds and gastric infections – and help others to avoid them too.

‘Excellent hygiene is vital to the hospital to keep patients, staff and visitors free from any infection,’ says Leslie. ‘We have a very good record and have never had a case of an MRSA bacteraemia or E. coli, and our last case of C. difficile was in 2002.’

Preventing the spread of bugs is key to the hospital’s success and using the same principles at home can reduce the chances of illness.

Six ways you can help avoid bugs:

1. Be as healthy as possible
‘A healthy diet — at least five portions of fruit or vegetables a day — as well as sleeping enough and avoiding stress keep your immune system functioning as well as possible, helping you to avoid illness,’ says Leslie.

2. Avoid contact with infection
If somebody has a cold or gastric infection avoiding them is the safest way to avoid catching it. If you have a cold or bug, it’s best to avoid others, says Leslie. ‘People on medication or recovering from illness or surgery, older people and the very young (whose immune systems haven’t fully developed) are all very vulnerable to infections,’ she says. ‘A sneeze that’s not captured can travel 30 metres. Vomit particles can travel very far too and contact with just one can be infectious.’

3. Wash and dry your hands well — and frequently
‘Hand hygiene is the most effective way of avoiding cross-infection,’ says Leslie. ‘Around 40 per cent of us have MRSA bacteria on our skin, and we pick up other bacteria all day, so we need to wash our hands well with soap before food preparation or eating; after going to the toilet; before and after being in contact with anyone who is unwell, and any time we have contact with bacteria, such as changing cat litter.’ Drying hands after washing them well is also vital. ‘Wet hands are as dangerous as dirty hands,’ she says.

4. Keep your house as clean as possible
Bacteria can remain active on surfaces so deep, antibacterial cleaning of all surfaces helps to avoid infections from spreading, Leslie advises. Toilets, bathrooms and kitchens are particularly important – germs from your toilet can travel six metres if you don’t close the lid before flushing. ‘Most kitchen cloths are full of bacteria, so use disposable cloths or wash yours at a high temperature and use disinfectant,’ Leslie adds. ‘While some may argue that a bit of dirt doesn’t harm, it can be very harmful if it’s passed on to someone who is susceptible to illness, such as those with a compromised immune system.’

5. Observe food safety rules
‘Use different chopping boards for raw and cooked meat – and have separate ones for raw vegetables and fruit,’ says Leslie. ‘Contaminated meat can harbour salmonella, E. coli or campylobacter, the most common cause of food poisoning. It’s vital to have separate kitchen utensils for raw meat and to store it, very well wrapped, away from other foods in your refrigerator.’

6. Bin it well
‘At the hospital we use pedal-operated bins as it means we don’t touch the bin lid when putting waste into them, meaning much less chance of cross-contamination,’ says Heather. ‘A foot-operated bin at home can really reduce your risk of picking up bugs.’ Clean the bin regularly with antibacterial spray and wash your hands well after emptying it.

For more information on staying healthy and well visit benenden.co.uk/healthier-you