Though kids are adorable, they’re also little germ balls, constantly exposed to other children’s illnesses at school and day care. They also love to do things like dig for nose gold and put everything imaginable into their mouths (including the soap they’re supposed to be using to wash their hands).
With that in mind, let’s give teachers a round of applause. Getting sneezed, coughed, and snotted on is practically as much a part of their job description as it is for doctors and nurses. Since we recently spoke to medical experts about how they avoid catching the flu from their patients, we figured it only made sense to talk to their comrades in education. Here are the best tips teachers shared with us on how they stay healthy.
1. Clean your hands well and often.
“I wash my hands frequently,” Anita P., 62, an elementary school teacher in Pepperell, Massachusetts, tells SELF. That’s a great move, since proper hand hygiene is illness prevention 101, infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the John’s Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells SELF. Washing your hands is so effective at stopping the spread of infectious respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it’s basically a DIY vaccine—though, of course, you should still get the flu vaccine on top of this step.
The CDC has a few simple steps for washing your hands the right way: Wet your hands with running water, add soap to work up a good lather, scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds, rinse with more running water, then dry your hands thoroughly.
If there’s no soap and water in sight, a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol is also a good option, according to the CDC. Jessica B., 35, a high school teacher in West Chester, Pennsylvania, keeps a large bottle of hand sanitizer at the entrance to her classroom so everyone can use it. That’s another A+ move—making it easier for the people around you to keep their hands clean can have a big impact, Dr. Adalja says.
2. Be sure to disinfect your surfaces often, especially when illnesses are making the rounds.
Pretty much every teacher we spoke to says they reach for disinfecting wipes frequently, especially during winter. “I pass around a tub of Clorox wipes every few weeks during cold and flu season and tell the kids to wipe down their desks [and] chairs,” Amanda R., 35, a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, tells SELF. “We also sanitize door handles, countertops, and anywhere else in the classroom that needs it,” she says.
This is key for preventing illnesses. A sick person can expel droplets of flu or cold viruses when they do things like speak, cough, and sneeze. These droplets can land on surfaces where you might inadvertently pick them up, the CDC says. If you then put your hands in your nose, mouth, or eyes, you can get sick, too. It’s a similar story with things like norovirus, which hangs around in fecal matter and can cause a stomach bug if you ingest it. Norovirus can live on surfaces where you can pick it up, unwittingly introduce it to your system, and become ill.
Wiping down surfaces—especially when sicknesses are going around—is a good way to reduce your exposure to germs and cut down on your risk of catching something, Richard
Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease specialist in Akron, Ohio, and an associate professor at Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells SELF. The CDC agrees.
3. At the same time, don’t go overboard on the cleanliness.
It’s important to keep surfaces clean, but you should avoid going OTT. “An overly sterile environment just sets people up for their immune systems to overreact when they’re exposed to bacteria and viruses,” Dr. Adalja says. That’s why Katy H., 36, a high school teacher in Wilmington, Delaware, takes it easy on cleaning. “I don’t over-sanitize anything,” she tells SELF.
Encountering pathogens is actually how your body learns to resist them. “Adults who are frequently exposed to viruses that cause upper respiratory infections can develop antibodies against them,” Dr. Watkins says. That’s why it makes sense that Kiersten S., 39, a high school teacher in Lewes, Delaware, was pretty much always sick her first few years of teaching, but got ill less often over time.
Keep in mind, though, that hundreds of viruses can cause the common cold. “It is virtually impossible for your immune system to protect against all of them,” Dr. Watkins says. You’ll probably build up some immunities after being exposed to these infection-causing germs, but that baseline prevention is important, too.
4. Try to avoid touching commonly used surfaces when you can.
Kiersten S. uses her elbows and hips to open doors whenever possible. Jessica R., 36, an elementary school teacher in Timonium, Maryland, steers clear of germy water fountains.
These methods can help because you avoid getting whatever microorganisms are on the surface of the object in question onto your hands, Dr. Adalja says. However, he warns, this will only get you so far. It’s hard to keep this guideline top-of-mind all the time—or even if you do, sometimes you have to use your hands. You might slip up, and that’s fine. It just underscores why it’s so important to practice good hand hygiene on the regular, Dr. Adalja says.
5. Consider changing when you get home from work.
Bacteria and viruses that you come into contact with during the day can hitch a ride home on your clothes. That’s why Susan P., 50, a preschool teacher in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, tells SELF that she changes out of her clothes as soon as she gets home.
“In general, doing this is going to decrease the amount of bacteria and viruses you’re exposed to,” Dr. Adalja says. But how helpful this will be ultimately depends on where you work and how many people you interact with, he says. If, like a school teacher, you’re constantly exposed to children, or if you’re always packed in like a sardine on public transportation, this can be a smart idea. But if you drive on your own to your office, where you work in a setting with generally healthy people, it’s probably not going to make as big of a difference.
6. Try to get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night.
Courtney M., 28, a middle school teacher in Watermael-Boitsfort, Belgium, tells SELF that she always strives to get a decent amount of sleep. Your immune system works best when you regularly get enough rest, Dr. Adalja says. That’s why even though sleeping enough is important for everyone, it’s especially crucial for people like teachers, who are constantly exposed to more germs than usual.
The average adult needs between seven to nine hours of sleep a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. If you’re getting fewer than that, you might be selling yourself—and your immune system—short. If any of these sleep problems are getting in the way of your rest, talk to your doctor.
7. Stop touching your face.
Karry B., 41, an elementary school teacher in Oxford, Pennsylvania, tells SELF that she always tries to keep her hands off of her face, especially her mouth and eyes. She’s on to something. Touching your face can be second nature—but it’s unfortunately also an excellent way to increase your odds of getting sick, especially if you’re constantly in a germy environment.
“Most these upper respiratory viruses enter into your body through your nasal passages, mouth, or eyes,” Dr. Adalja explains. “The more you’re touching these areas, the greater your risk.”
Of course, no one’s body is perfect. You can do all of these things and still get sick at some point. Still, incorporating these little tricks into your life could keep your cold-and-flu tally as low as possible.