Tech & Work

How to protect yourself from colds and flu at work

Health expert provides simple tips to help you avoid catching a cold and flu at the office.

health wellness workplace sick
LittleBee80, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Techs are constantly touching other user's keyboards, mice, and phones. While this contact may seem harmless, I have always theorized that this interaction is the cause of many a support tech's misery during the cold and flu season. If I'm right, not only do support techs pick up cold and/or flu bugs from end users' peripherals, they also pass them to other keyboards and, therefore, to other people. I decided to investigate this, and here's what I found.

Ask the experts

There are countless websites with cold and flu prevention information. While most backed up my theory that cold and flu viruses are passed mainly through hand contact and not the air, I found none that discussed the sharing of computer equipment and telephones. However, there was one expert who seemed willing to go a bit further than the others.

SEE: Ergonomics policy template download (Tech Pro Research)

Charles B. Inlander, coauthor of 77 Ways to Beat Colds and Flu, has been cited on several Web sites, including CNN, MSN, and On Health. Mr. Inlander seemed a little more radical than the rest and went as far as to say, "it is safer to kiss someone with a cold than to shake their hand." Because his credentials were superb (he is a faculty lecturer at Yale Medical School, president of the People's Medical Society, and author of numerous health related books), I decided to ask him to explain his statement and comment on our theories.

Keep your hands to yourself

I explained my keyboard theory to Mr. Inlander and he agreed. However, he also clarified the situation. "You don't catch it by touching a keyboard," he said, "but by touching your face after touching the keyboard."

In other words, the virus is on the keyboard, mouse, telephone, and so on. Once a desktop support analyst touches the keyboard, he or she now has it on his or her hands. If the analyst then touches his or her nose, ears, eyes, or mouth, the analyst will become infected. So my theory was right. But are support techs giving the cold or flu back to our users as well?

Inlander confirmed my fears. Depending on office conditions, viruses that cause colds and flu can live on a keyboard, mouse, or any other piece of equipment for anywhere from three minutes to several hours. He stated unequivocally, "there's no question-those going from keyboard to keyboard are passing it around."

Beating the cold/flu bug

When asked how to prevent catching/spreading colds and flu, Mr. Inlander offered the following suggestions:

  • Avoid touching your face. Viruses can stay on your hands for a long time, but if you don't get them near your eyes, nose, ears, or mouth, they can't infect you. Unfortunately, Inlander agreed that this is not a practical solution. For most people, it's just not possible to get through a day without touching some part of our face several times. Even if it were possible, it doesn't prevent us from spreading a virus.
  • Antibacterial wipes and lotions don't work on nonbacterial infections. These products are antibacterial and are not designed to kill viruses.
  • Wash your hands. The only practical method of dealing with viruses is frequent, vigorous hand washing. Washing your hands thoroughly with plain soap and water loosens the viruses and helps break them down. Rinsing under running water then washes them away, and it doesn't matter if you use antibacterial soap or even hot water. Although this sounds simple, remember that in order to make sure you're not picking up and transmitting cold and flu bugs, you must wash your hands before and after each desktop visit. If you are one of those people who gets really sick every year and dreads the weeks of coughing and wheezing, this is a small price to pay for better health.

Mr. Inlander wanted to make it clear that while washing hands will prevent cold and flu, he's not suggesting anyone become obsessed with it. Since none of us are infants and most of us aren't elderly, there's really not much danger.

Wrapping up

While there's nothing that will completely protect you from catching or spreading cold and flu germs (aside from living in a plastic bubble), you should take simple precautions to minimize your risk. Avoid touching your face, and wash your hands frequently. And if you do get sick, stay home. No one wants to share your cold or flu. What do you think of Charles Inlander's advice? Do you think support techs are at a higher risk for cold and flu viruses? Share your experiences and opinions with your fellow TechRepublic members. Post a comment below.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox