Q. When my spouse gets a bad cold or the flu, is there anything I can do to reduce the likelihood that I will get it? Would it make a difference if I avoid sleeping in the same bed or avoid handling the same objects (nearly impossible)? Assuming I am not going to move out of the house, are there any smaller steps that could help? Once symptoms are evident, is it already too late?
A. There’s no question that it’s harder to protect yourself when the sick person is living inside your house.
Washing the hands frequently is of course key to preventing illness, both inside and outside the home, said Dr. Robin Thompson, an internist at ProHealth Care Associates in Huntington, N.Y.
“Avoiding close contact is probably helpful, but not a guarantee,” she said. Sleeping in the same bed will increase your chances of contracting your spouse’s illness but often can’t be avoided, Dr. Thompson said. “You can’t move out of the house.”
Regularly cleaning counters and frequently touched spots (like the fridge handles) may also cut down on germs.
Those shared cups in the bathroom for tooth-brushing can also be a transmission source, added Dr. Susan Rehm, vice chairwoman of the infectious disease department at the Cleveland Clinic.
“Make sure tissues and other things that might have secretions on them are taken care of promptly and without someone else picking them up,” she suggested.
If a spouse catches the flu, being vaccinated is the best protection, Dr. Rehm said. Some doctors will prescribe family members an antiviral drug for added protection.
Dr. Rehm said that whenever she’s worried about being exposed to illness, she concentrates on the basics that she can control, such as eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep. “Potentially that will help me withstand the exposure, or at least put me in a better place to get through it.”
Dr. Pritish Tosh, an infectious diseases researcher at the Mayo Clinic, said it’s important to remember “respiratory etiquette” when you are sick, including coughing and sneezing into the crook of your elbow rather than your hands. He said he tends to isolate himself when he’s sick, keeping as far away as possible from other household members.
Families are often exposed to germs around the same time, so it’s common to have household infections overlap, he noted.
Of course, if your illness starts a few days after your spouse’s, you know who’s likely to blame.