How Public Health Practices Can Help Shake the Common Cold

By: Tara Kole, MPH ‘15

In efforts to protect and promote the health of communities, public health practitioners work to communicate the importance of, and methods associated with, maintaining wellness through presenting ways in which to prevent the spread of illness. Respiratory tract infections, although preventable, are the most common cause of illness in children as well as adults.

Occurring mostly during fall, winter, and spring, it is also referred to as the “common cold”, influenza “the flu”, or upper respiratory tract infection. Our immune systems come into contact with bacteria and viruses every day, ultimately increasing the risks of “catching” a cold. The respiratory tract is more exposed to infection as compared to other parts of the body, considering it is easy for bacteria or viruses to enter the tract when simply breathing in. Infection can also be spread through coming into contact with various surfaces. These areas include: desks, tables, hand rails, door knobs etc. Viruses survive longer on harder surfaces, as compared to softer surfaces such as tissues or fabrics. In efforts to prevent catching or spreading infection, it is essential to exercise some simple, yet very effective, prevention techniques. These steps enable reduction in exposure while simultaneously increasing the body’s natural and supplemental ability to recognize and overcome pathogen related illnesses.

  1. Vaccination. Vaccines help to protect individuals, as well as the health of communities, through boosting the body’s natural defenses and ensuring the safe development of immunity to various diseases. Furthermore, vaccines enable the development of immunity without having to get sick; making it safer than encountering full exposure to an illness or disease. More specifically, flu vaccines provide protection against various strains of the infection that have the potential to cause serious complications. As populations continue to make the decision to get vaccinated, illnesses will remain limited in their spread. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2017), “Vaccines help develop immunity by imitating an infection, but this "imitation" infection does not cause illness. It does, however, cause the immune system to develop the same response as it does to a real infection so the body can recognize and fight the vaccine-preventable disease in the future” (How Vaccines Prevent Diseases). Ultimately, vaccines are essential as they work to build the body’s immunity and ability to fight bacteria and viruses, and also minimize, or prevent, the spread of illnesses among populations.
  2. Proper hygiene. Another practice that can deter the spread of respiratory infections is the use of proper hygiene and maintaining the cleanliness of frequented surfaces or areas. Effective hygiene can be achieved through handwashing, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces or objects. The CDC lists several steps useful for preventing the spread of germs. This list is made up of actions that can be taken personally as well as things that contribute to a healthy environment. Personally, individuals can help themselves and others by staying home when they are sick, covering their coughs as well as sneezes, and washing hands frequently. Additionally, there are ways to improve the effectiveness of personal hygiene through practicing specific hand washing and coughing prevention steps. For instance, the CDC lists specific instructions to effectively wash your hands. First, wet your hands, then turn off the tap and “lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.” After that, rinse your hands under running water once again, and then dry them with a clean towel or air dry. Be sure to wash your hands before, during, and after handling food, after using the restroom, after coming into contact with an animal of any kind, including dog food and waste, after coming into contact with garbage, as well as before and after caring for someone who is sick.

Although convenient, hand sanitizer should not be used as a replacement for handwashing, as alcohol-based sanitizers are most effective in killing germs, bacteria and viruses on clean hands. Furthermore, at the community level, implementing a social distancing intervention or a plan directed by public health practitioners to help slow or stop the spread of contagious illness can prove to be beneficial within schools, workplaces, and events. Additionally, keeping the environment germ-free is of extreme importance. This is achieved by disinfecting surfaces or objects that are touched often. These objects include: doorknobs, handrails, tabletops, telephones, computer keyboards, chairs, etc. More specifically, we all must work together in efforts to prevent the spread of viruses. Through proper hygiene, individuals create and sustain an environment that is not suitable for the virus to thrive. All individuals who frequent any environment are equally responsible for combating the spread of preventable illnesses, to include respiratory tract infections.

Respiratory tract infections or the “common cold” are prevalent among children and adults, but there are ways in which to lessen the spread of infection. Getting vaccinated and maintaining proper hygiene are both important actions that can be taken to protect yourself as well as your community from getting, or spreading, illness. It is important to remember that the actions taken today have the potential to affect tomorrow. Therefore, exercising prevention techniques throughout the day can help protect yourself and others from spreading illness.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). For Parents: Making the Vaccine Decision. Retrieved from
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Nonpharmaceutical Interventions. Retrieved from