Winter viruses | NIH MedlinePlus Magazine

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While a cold, flu, or COVID-19 can strike at any time, you’re more likely to pick up a virus in the winter than other times of the year. The cold, dry air in the winter months provides perfect conditions for viruses to spread. People are also more likely to gather indoors to avoid the cold weather, making it easier for viruses to spread in large numbers.

Prevention best practices

The best way to protect yourself from a virus is to get vaccinated if one is available. But even if you’re vaccinated, you should take the following steps to avoid getting sick.

  • Mask up. Wear a mask in crowded and other public areas where viruses can spread quickly.
  • Wash your hands frequently. Washing with soap and warm water is still the best way to keep clean, but hand sanitizer is good in a pinch. Just because you don’t see any dirt or grime on your hands, that doesn’t mean germs aren’t there!
  • Disinfect surfaces. To make sure you’re reducing germs, consider using disinfectants like bleach or antibacterial wipes when cleaning surfaces. Some high-touch surfaces to focus on include counters, doorknobs, faucets and toilet handles, light switches, remotes, phones, and toys.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. If someone you’re living with comes down with a virus, try to stay in different rooms as much as possible, use separate dishware, and wipe down shared spaces such as bathrooms. If you must be in the same room, try to keep some distance between one another. Access to fresh air also lowers the risk of infection. Air purifiers are great if you have one, and if the weather’s warm enough, a cracked window can help fresh air flow into the room.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth. Though COVID-19 mainly spreads through the air, many other viruses spread when someone touches a surface with the virus on it and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth. This can help a virus enter the body.

Steps to recover quickly from an illness

Should you come down with a cold, the flu, COVID-19, or another respiratory virus, here are some tips on how to help care for yourself.

  • Avoid close contact with people, including the ones you live with, as much as possible
  • Get tested—knowing what’s causing the infection can help inform treatment decisions. Older individuals and those with existing medical conditions should call their doctor if they test positive for COVID-19.
  • Rest, drink lots of liquids, and take pain relievers as needed for aches and pains. If you have a high fever, your health care provider may recommend over-the-counter pain relievers to help.
  • Ask your doctor about prescription antiviral drugs
  • Try using a humidifier or steam to relieve congestion
  • Gargling with salt water can help get rid of mucus in the back of the throat
  • Cough drops and hard candy can help ease a cough or sore throat
  • If symptoms get much worse, consider going to the hospital

Symptom breakdown

Key: 🔴 COVID-19, 🔷 Flu, 🟧 Cold

Vaccines protect you and others

Vaccines not only protect you, they also help prevent the spread of disease to vulnerable populations. The flu kills more than 36,000 people and hospitalizes another 200,000 people in the United States each year. And since January 2020, COVID-19 has killed 1.2 million people across the country.

Today’s flu vaccines are developed to prevent what scientists believe will be the most widespread flu strain each winter. Earlier this year, NIH began enrolling people in a clinical trial of a universal flu vaccine developed by scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. If it works, the vaccine could provide long-lasting protection against multiple flu virus strains (and might one day get rid of the need to get vaccinated every year!).

Until then, be sure to get your flu shot every year as well as the COVID-19 vaccine and any recommended boosters. COVID-19 vaccines, which are authorized and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, are safe, free, widely available, and highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises everyone ages 5 and older to get the first two COVID-19 vaccines and everyone ages 12 and older to get a booster shot.

You can find a local COVID-19 or flu vaccination site by going to You can also text your zip code to GETVAX (438829) for information in English or VACUNA (822862) for information in Spanish.

*This article was originally published in March 2022. It was updated in November 2023.

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