12 habits that make you a cold and flu target

Be alert to these germy scenarios so you can take steps to stay healthy
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health

Autumn brings to mind pumpkins, football and, unfortunately, colds and the flu. If you find yourself with a sore throat, body aches and fever, you may be among the 5 to 20 percent of the U.S. population to come down with the flu this season. Or you may be lucky enough to get away with just a common cold, which can make you miserable but does not produce severe symptoms.

Either way, staying healthy takes more than simply avoiding sneezing or coughing people, says Dr. Gregory A. Poland, an infectious disease expert at the Mayo Clinic. "You can get infected by touching the surface of something an infected person has touched. These inanimate objects, known as 'fomites,' are capable of carrying and transferring viruses and bacteria, although you can also get them from inhaling viruses suspended in the air."

The problem is it's impossible to avoid fomites completely, says Poland. But becoming aware of certain habits that make you a germ target reduces your risk of getting sick. Be alert to these germy scenarios so you can take steps to stay healthy.

--By Linda Melone for MSN Healthy Living

1 of 14 Sick man on couch (© Clerkenwell/Getty Images)

You touch every seat on your way down the airplane aisle

As you find your way down the aisle to your seat on the plane you might touch the backs of every seat along the way without even realizing it. So does everyone else. What's an even worse germ accumulator? The seat pocket in front of you, says Ted Myatt, a senior scientist at Environmental Health & Engineering and biological safety officer at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "People stuff used tissues in that pocket. It's a horrible place." These factors and the close quarters of an airplane make it a worst-case germ scenario.

Stay safe: Crank up the air jets above your seat to create a curtain of clean air between you and a coughing or sneezing passenger, says Myatt. "The air is HEPA (High Efficiency Particle Filters) filtered, so it's very clean." Plus, use sanitizer wipes to wipe down the tray table before using it, as it's another robust source of cold and flu germs.

2 of 14 Airplane interior (© Chase Jarvis/Getty Images)

You take the elevator instead of the stairs

Elevator buttons are ideal fomites and notorious for spreading infection in hospitals, nursing homes and office buildings, says Dr. Jennifer Collins, an assistant professor of allergy and immunology at The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary in Brooklyn, N.Y. "It's difficult to keep them clean/disinfected because of how commonly they are used and exposed to hands." Viruses found on elevator buttons include those responsible for causing colds and the flu and can remain active on surfaces for up to three days. "Elevator buttons are in constant use, which makes them a means for a constant new supply of infectious agents," says Collins.

Stay safe: Using your elbow or the side of your arm can prevent you from exposure, but a more realistic approach is to wash your hands thoroughly after touching any object the general population uses, says Collins.

3 of 14 Hand pressing elevator button (© Datacraft/Getty Images)

You use the middle stall in a public restroom

When using a public restroom you may be more likely to choose a middle stall than one at the end, for privacy's sake. Problem is, everyone else thinks similarly, possibly making the middle stall the germiest, though any stall can be home to many germs and viruses. "Surprisingly, despite the yuck factor of these bacteria and germs in the bathroom, the most likely place to get sick is from areas that come into contact with your hands," says Collins. "There's very little infection risk from sitting on a public toilet as long as it looks clean to the eye." The toilet handle and the inside bathroom door latch are more likely to contain germs that can make you sick.

Stay safe: Washing your hands after using the toilet is the best defense against picking up a virus. Be sure to turn off the faucet with a paper towel, and do the same when grabbing the doorknob on your way out or risk recontaminating yourself, says the Mayo Clinic's Poland.

4 of 14 Public restroom (© Axel Fassio/Getty Images)

You take the subway, bus or other mass transit

If you're in any situation where there's crowding, you're at risk of exposure to cold and flu germs, says Poland. Both flu and cold viruses are spread by air as well as by touching surfaces. "Dry winter air holds germs suspended in the air longer than in more humid weather, which is why you're more likely to catch a cold in the winter," says Poland.

Stay safe: Be properly prepared: Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer and use it on your hands, says Poland. "If your hand is wet with the sanitizer and you grab the subway strap or pole, you're in essence cleaning what you're holding, too."

5 of 14 Woman holding railing on bus (© Toby Burrows/Getty Images)

You rarely take time off

Burning the candle at both ends and never taking vacations can lower your immune system and make you more susceptible to catching a flu bug. Some studies show that stress causes a negative impact on the immune system by increasing inflammatory activity, resulting in a continuously "turned on" immune system, says Dr. Richard Sadovsky, an associate professor of family medicine in the department of family medicine at SUNY-Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Stay safe: Use your vacation days to unplug and de-stress.

6 of 14 Woman checking time (© Jamie Grill/Getty Images)

You put your hands on the escalator railings at the mall

From moving sidewalks in airports to escalators in shopping malls, holding on to the handrails puts you in touch with more of humanity than you may think. "Airports do clean their escalator railings, but usually only once a day, and in the middle of the night," says bio-safety officer Myatt, who recently conducted studies on airport germs. Chances are you're more likely to catch something at the mall, however. "A mall has many little kids running around, and they're more likely to be 'drivers' for cold and flu transmission," says Myatt.

Stay safe: If you touch public handrails do not touch your face until you have a chance to wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based sanitizing gel.

7 of 14 Businessman on an escalator (© Purestock/Getty Images)

You share your pen with co-workers

In most cases, an infected person likely has the virus on his or her fingers, says Myatt. "So you'll find the virus on things they touch with their fingers, such as pens, telephones, computer keyboards, etc." This also means they're likely spreading viruses through touching the break room refrigerator and microwave doors, as well as doorknobs and door handles.

Stay safe: Don't share your pens, keyboard or phone if you can help it, so that the only way germs will end up on your equipment is if the germs are already on your own hands, says Myatt. Wipe everything down with sanitizing wipes.

8 of 14 Man using pen (© John Howard/Getty Images)

You're sleep deprived

A lack of sleep affects the immune system similarly to a stress response, according to a recent study out of the United Kingdom. Sleep-deprived healthy young men showed a drop in white blood cells known as granulocytes, which help the body fight bacterial infections. Previous studies also show that sleep helps maintain immune system functioning and that chronic sleep loss puts the immune system at risk. "Many studies show that sleep deprivation and fatigue make people more susceptible to virus infections," says Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a senior research scientist in the University of Washington's department of microbiology's school of medicine.

Stay safe: The recommended hours of sleep vary according to age, but the National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep for adults.

9 of 14 Tired man (© Stephen Marks/Getty Images)

You use the same towel to wipe off sweat from an exercise machine to wipe your face

Exercisers coughing, sneezing and touching gym equipment can easily spread viruses and germs. A 2006 study in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine showed that 56 percent of aerobic equipment and 73 percent of weight training equipment tested positive for viruses. Using a towel creates a protective barrier between you and the equipment -- especially over bike handlebars that people touch with their hands. But if you use the same towel to wipe your face, you risk transferring the germs to you, says Collins.

Stay safe: Use a fresh towel for wiping your face and do not share towels at the gym.

10 of 14 Woman in gym (© Jordan Siemens/Getty Images)