During cold and flu season, we try our best to protect ourselves from the sick masses, lathering on the hand sanitizer and stepping away from sniffling colleagues. But when your spouse or partner comes down with a virus, you don’t exactly want to quarantine them … and yet, you really don’t want to get sick yourself. How can you balance caring for a loved one without sacrificing your own health? Are cuddling, sex, or even just sleeping in the same bed out of the question? Here’s what the experts say:
1. Build up your immunity all year long
Before anyone gets sick, it’s a good idea to prepare yourself at this time of year. “The most important thing people can do is well ahead of time, and that is taking good care of themselves and getting vaccinated [for the flu],” Pritish Tosh, an infectious diseases doctor at Mayo Clinic and a member of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group, told Yahoo Health. “The healthier people are to begin with, the more likely they are to bounce back readily from an influenza infection.”
All those other things doctors tell you to do — getting enough sleep and exercise, eating a balanced diet — should be high on your priority list these days too.
2. Take immune-boosting herbs, vitamins, and probiotics
Medical herbalist Daniela Turley recommends taking some of the same things you would if you were already sick. Elderberry, which has antiviral properties, is a good place to start. “Even if you aren’t sick but have been exposed to your partner’s virus, what it’s going to do is help to stop the virus from replicating,” she told Yahoo Health. “The earlier you take it the better.”
Zinc has also been clinically proven to reduce the duration of colds, which means it will also help you early on. To get the desired short-term boost, Turley suggests around four or five times the recommended daily allowance, but not for long. “Zinc at a high dose long-term will be toxic and will make you deficient in copper,” she warns.
If you aren’t already onboard the probiotic train, this might be the time to start, too. “Taking a probiotic has been shown fairly conclusively to reduce the duration of a cold and symptoms by boosting your IGA, the immunoglobulin that lines your lungs, throat and gut — your first line of defense against a cold,” Turley says.
3. Keep hands washed, and below the neck
“One of the more important things is making sure everyone is washing their hands constantly, so if viral particles are living on surfaces, you won’t get them inside of you,” said Holly Phillips, a board-certified medical internist and CBS News medical contributor. “The other thing to do is keep your hands below your neck. Even if you have viral particles on your hands, if you don’t reach up and touch your eyes or rub your nose or touch your mouth, you won’t get sick.”
4. Ask the sick person to cough into their sleeve
Tosh calls this “good respiratory etiquette.” The biggest culprit in transmitting respiratory illnesses, he says, are droplets that come from coughing and sneezing. If someone is too sick to avoid coughing in your face, you even might consider a face mask.
This is far more important than all the surface cleaning and laundry you can do all over the house, Tosh said. Though, he adds, “generally keeping things clean is very reasonable.”
5. Head to the kitchen
First off, even if you have one of those ambitious patients who still wants to cook dinner for the family, kick them out of the kitchen. "They likely have viral particles on their hand,” Phillips says. “If you cough, particles spread 20-40 feet, so they’d get all over the food, all over the kitchen, even on the refrigerator door.”
While you take over meal duty, both Phillips and Turley suggest cooking with shiitake mushrooms, which reduce inflammation and boost white blood cells, and fresh ginger, which helps the lymph system.
To ward off respiratory infection, Turley recommends crushing raw garlic, letting it rest for 15 minutes, and then adding it to foods like hummus or already cooked soup. You can also season your salads with a spoonful of fire cider, a special spicy concoction of ginger, chilies, lemon juice, turmeric, garlic, onion, and apple cider vinegar. (Check out her recipe for it here.)
6. Open the window
“One of the main reasons we have a cold and flu season isn’t because it’s cold outside during the winter but rather, because it’s cold outside, we spend more time indoors,” Phillips explained. “That traps in more germs.”
7. Kiss at your own risk
“In general, try to stay away from respiratory secretions, which are going to be infectious,” Tosh cautioned. “I don’t want people to say, ‘You told me not to kiss my husband.’ No, I said, avoid unnecessary exposure to infectious respiratory secretions.”
8. That goes for sex too
No, these viruses can’t be sexually transmitted — it’s just all the other body parts that touch during sex that put you in danger. Plus, even if your partner’s drugged up enough to feel sexy for a short time, they shouldn’t really be getting too active until they’re well. “Engaging in overly strenuous activity is probably not going to help things and may make things worse,” Tosh said. (If you need help abstaining, just repeat the phrase “respiratory secretions” to yourself a few times.)
Related: 25 Ways to Fix a Sexless Marriage
9. Oil pull
If you do end up kissing sicky, you can try a topical gargle or spray to give yourself another immunity boost. “I personally always have oregano oil at home,” Turley said. “Oregano oil is antimicrobial.” She recommends combining oregano and coconut oil, swishing it in your mouth, and spitting it out (though not into the drain, as it does clog). You could also try a ready-made herbal throat spray.
10. Go to bed, or the couch
“On one hand, [when you’re sick] having your partner there is very helpful, just in terms of having the psychological support,” Tosh said. On the other, you’re right up there next to those infectious respiratory secretions, so it’s a judgment call you have to make yourself.
“I think your partner will forgive you if they’re coughing and sneezing and they have a terrible fever and they’re clearly virulent, if you say, 'You know what? I’m about to crash on the couch,’” Phillips said. “And also you’ll both probably get a better night’s sleep, which is critical to both preventing getting sick and recovering.”