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How to protect yourself from the flu? Wash your hands

Americans are getting hit with a double whammy of viruses this year – an especially vicious flu season, and on top of it, a stomach bug called norovirus that seems to be infecting more people than usual.

Both are very easy to catch and both can be very unpleasant, putting people on their backs for a week or more with fever, body aches and, in the case of norovirus, vomiting and diarrhea. Influenza also kills several thousand people every year, including previously healthy children and adults.

So how can you protect yourself? One good way is to wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands, experts agree.

“People need to learn to wash their hands and wash them well,” says Jeanne Matthews, chair of the department of nursing at Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies in Washington, D.C. Handwashing protects you, and it keeps you from spreading any viruses you may have to anyone else.

“Certainly teaching your kids early on to wash their hands frequently is one of the most important things you can do,” Matthews adds. “Having the flu in the house doesn't have to be a family affair.”

And it can protect you even when everyone around you is sick. Viruses live in tiny droplets of saliva and mucus, which people spread when they touch their mouths or noses and then touch something else. There’s evidence that many viruses such as norovirus can really stick to plates and dishes and they definitely stick to telephones, TV remote controls, computer keyboards and other frequently touched objects.

You can pick up those germs on your own fingers, and infect yourself when you touch your nose, mouth or eyes.

Influenza can travel on tiny droplets in the air, but these sink and fall to the ground within a few feet. So teaching adults and children alike to cover their coughs can prevent the spread of all sorts of viruses, including colds and flu.

“You cough into your sleeve, or you cough into a tissue and then throw the tissue away and then wash your hands,” Matthews says.

Alcohol-based gel or foam hand sanitizers can kill viruses and bacteria, but it can be risky to rely on them alone. One study released in 2011 at the annual Meeting of the American College of Preventive Medicine found that  norovirus -- often called “stomach flu” – can spread despite their use.

Washing hands thoroughly with warm soap and water has a big advantage over hand sanitizers because it can actually wash germs down the drain.

There are two other important ways to stop the spread of viruses: vaccines, and staying home when you are sick.

“The first recommendation that we have is for everyone to get a flu shot. It’s never too early or too late to do that,” Matthews says. “Even if you have flu in your family it is a good way to protect yourself. “

And adults should stay home from work when they are sick – and keep their kids home from school when they are sick. It’s a no-brainer that too many people ignore, experts point out.

Even though it's still early in the flu season, hospitals around the country are stretching their resources to face an onslaught of patients sick with the flu. NBC's Dr. Nancy Snyderman reports.

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