How to Stay Healthy This Cold-and-Flu Season

Hand-washing versus masking, staying home versus going into work, and the policy solutions we’re not (yet) pursuing

a person wearing a faux fur coat and face mask, with a blue bag over their shoulder
A person wearing a face mask in January 2022 in New York City. (Noam Galai / Getty)

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Cold-and-flu season is upon us, and COVID-19 is still here too. I called our staff writer Jacob Stern, who has published recent updates on the science of masking and hand-washing, and asked him to break down a few common misunderstandings about the spread of respiratory viruses and how to protect others when we get sick.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


Air Travel

Kelli María Korducki: Jacob, everyone seems to have a cold right now—including me! One would think that, with the masking and hand-washing habits we developed during the pandemic, we wouldn’t all be getting sick. And yet, here we are. What’s going on?

Jacob Stern: Well, it’s because we’re all still washing our hands and not wearing masks enough.

Hand-washing is still very important for preventing the transmission of gastrointestinal viruses and plenty of other pathogens. And as I wrote in my recent article, it is also important for preventing respiratory viruses in a more marginal way—but not as important as things having to do with air, like masking or ensuring good ventilation. Your cold is probably not the result of having not washed your hands; it is more likely the result of having been infected through the air with whatever coronavirus this happens to be. So, more likely the result of being in a crowded indoor space or spending a lot of time in close proximity to someone who was infected.

Kelli: In your article about masking, you mentioned the goal of changing “the physical world to stop viral transmission before it happens.” What does that world look like, and how far are we from achieving it?

Jacob: The basic insight there is that vaccines and antivirals are great. On the other hand, they take a really long time to develop, and they’re basically reactive. Like, we can’t design our vaccine for a virus until we know something about what that virus is going to be. But there are all sorts of things we can do to change our physical world—whether that’s improving ventilation or investing in germicidal lighting or wearing really high-quality masks—that can stop viral transmission. No matter what virus we encounter, those things are going to be effective.

In terms of how close we are to actually living in that sort of utopian, virus-free world that some people are hoping to create: I would say not super close.

Part of why the people I talk with in this piece are so interested in masks is because masking is easier than some of the other steps we need to take to get to that perfect world. Improved ventilation, for example, is something that has to be installed in buildings all over the place, and you need a huge amount of institutional buy-in there. As for germicidal lighting, more research still needs to be done on it, and there are probably regulations about what kinds of lighting are permitted in various places that would need to be changed. And then similarly, it would need to be installed.

Masks are the closest thing we have to a potential solution where a group of focused, committed people can make some progress on their own by designing better masks, making them more affordable, and then making plans to distribute them.

Kelli: What is the largest misconception about cold-and-flu season?

Jacob: I hesitate to go right at the largest, since I’m sure I’m going to forget something that is a still-bigger misconception. But one that didn’t even make it into any of my articles is this idea that you catch a cold from being physically cold or spending too much time outside—which, as we know from the past few years, is not what’s going on. Getting sick has to do with the dynamics of airborne transmission.

And then, similarly, there’s this idea that hand-washing is sort of the No. 1 public-health strategy that we have at our disposal, or at least the No. 1 individual public-health strategy that we have at our disposal. But what the past three years have taught us, if anything, is that hand-washing can do only so much. Thinking about air rather than transmission via surfaces is actually a way more effective strategy for the season we’re talking about.

Kelli: Over the summer, you listed some tips for how to be “a good sick person” in the COVID era. Do you have any suggestions that you would offer for the cold-and-flu season that we are currently enjoying?

Jacob: The really big one, which has not changed: If you are sick, stay home. It does not matter whether it’s COVID or something else. What we should have internalized is that going into work sick is not some great sacrifice or act of bravery. It’s sort of selfish because you’re going to put all your co-workers at risk of getting sick as well. Especially in this era when so many people are able to work from home.

That said, the big caveat here is that there are huge numbers of people around the country who do not have the capacity to work from home, or who may not even have paid sick leave at all. So this top piece of advice, sadly, is not something that a lot of people can take. And the solution to that obviously has to be a policy solution.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. The latest U.S. government data show that GDP rose 0.6 percent after two quarters of decline, but other indicators suggest an economic slowdown.
  2. Elon Musk published an open letter in anticipation of his purchase of Twitter this week, stating that he is acquiring the platform to create “a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner.”
  3. The Pentagon outlined a new national-security strategy that highlights the dangers posed by China and Russia.

Evening Read
Cusk in an attic room by a window
(Juergen Teller for The Atlantic)

Rachel Cusk Won’t Stay Still

By Thomas Chatterton Williams

To access Rachel Cusk’s apartment in Paris, on the top floor of a narrow residential building in the Marais, you must first climb five flights of winding stairs. Once inside her place, you are confronted with yet another staircase, at the top of which runs a sleek corridor of rooms and a highly Instagrammable reading nook. From that level, there remains a final, minimal set of steps leading up to a loftlike living space, which gives way to a lovely terrace with unobstructed views that more than justify the effort needed to get there.

It is not every day that a writer you believe to be one of the greatest living novelists up and expatriates to a few minutes from your doorstep … Cusk’s is a literature of immaculately crafted observations, as aesthetically exhilarating as it is philosophically devastating. And I have a suspicion that this move to Paris—a city full of the sort of bourgeois social situations she captures with such punishing honesty—will yield something spectacular.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break
Camerapeople filming girls dancing
A behind-the-scenes shot of the filming of The Fits. (Cinematic Collection / Alamy)

Read. The Furrows, a new novel by Namwali Serpell that explores grief as it’s really experienced.

Watch. The Fits (on Showtime), an astonishing and under-the-radar debut from 2016 about the bizarre ways peer pressure can manifest.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

I asked Jacob if he wanted to recommend anything not related to avoiding respiratory viruses. “I had never seen Seinfeld until, like, two weeks ago, when I started watching it on Netflix,” he told me. “There are definitely episodes that have aged poorly, but for the most part I think it’s incredibly funny. Definitely recommend.”

— Kelli

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.