If you ride the subway on the reg, then you know there are some unspoken, yet generally agreed-upon rules: no manspreading, don't eat anything too pungent, and don't rub up against people, just to name a few. At rush hour, though, when everyone is shoved in as tightly as possible, the first thing on my mind is the number of germs in such a confined space. I'm definitely no germaphobe, but I have to wonder: Can you catch a cold from the subway? Gather your favorite bottle of hand soap and your thickest pair of gloves, because taking the subway can definitely leave you vulnerable to the flu and cold viruses.
A new study, published in the journal Environmental Health, set out to discover whether you can actually get sick from germs transported on the subway, or if it's just something we commuters get too worked up about. But uh, it seems like my concerns are pretty justified: The researchers used the London Underground system to analyze people in the station and to figure out their routes. They found that, the more contact a person has with other people during their commute, the more likely they are to live in a part of town with more influenza-like illnesses, meaning there's definitely a link of some kind between using public transportation and the airborne spread of sickness.
No need to call it quits on public transportation just yet, though, because there are some things you can do to protect yourself. "The most important tip for preventing the spread of the flu and the cold virus is hand hygiene," says Dr. Melynda Barnes, an ear-nose-throat specialist and associate clinical director at Ro. "As someone who rides the subway every day, I recommend wearing gloves or trying to avoid touching the metal poles," she tells Elite Daily. Additionally, she says, watch out for handles, turnstyles, and doors, because touching them with your bare hands can definitely spread germs.
Personally, I've always assumed that the flu virus couldn't live long on non-human surfaces, but Dr. Barnes explains that this actually isn't the case. "The flu virus can survive on surfaces for 24 to 48 hours, and some cold viruses can survive up to seven days on non-porous (plastic, metal, wood) surfaces," she says. So, if someone has sneezed into their hands and then holds onto a subway pole or wipes their palm off on a seat, anyone else who touches that same spot could catch the virus. Great.
Luckily, if you aren't too excited about constantly remembering to wear gloves whenever you're in the subway station, you do have an alternative way to keep your hands germ-free. "If you hold onto the pole, it is easy enough to quickly sanitize your hands once you exit the subway," suggests Dr. Barnes. Just keep a container of hand sanitizer in your bag (this Eucalyptus & Tea Foaming Hand Sanitizer from Bath & Body Works is great because it doesn't smell like pure alcohol and won't leak all over the place), and you'll be all set.
I don't know about you, but I've always been curious about those face masks you sometimes see people wearing in subway stations and airports during flu season. They definitely look effective, but in reality, do they do much to keep you germ-free?
While it doesn't seem like these masks have been researched in a subway environment, they've proven pretty useful in hospitals, says Dr. Barnes. "Bottom line, the masks probably do help; but keep in mind that the flu and cold viruses do not live long in the air, but live much longer on surfaces," she tells Elite Daily. "It's much more effective to keep your hands protected, clean, and away from your nose and mouth."
In addition to washing your hands plenty of times throughout the day, Dr. Barnes recommends getting lots of good-quality sleep, and making sure you're eating enough nutrient-rich foods. Reducing your stress levels can also help keep your immune system running at its strongest, she says, so be sure to make time for your favorite self-care routine.