Preventing respiratory tract infections (RTIs)

There are some very simple things you can do to avoid catching a respiratory tract infection (RTI) or spreading the infection to others if you do have one. These things may sound simple, but research shows they are highly effective for reducing the spread of infections — even serious ones.

Stay at home if you are unwell

If you have a cold or flu (influenza) — or any respiratory tract infection (RTI) — see your doctor if necessary and stay at home until you feel better. This helps you to get over the infection faster, and will also mean that you won’t come into contact with others and spread your infection.

Handy guide to when you're most infectious

The flu vaccine

Having a flu vaccination every year just before winter can help to protect you from getting flu. Each year the flu vaccine will be different, and will contain the most common strains of flu virus that are causing infection.

Being vaccinated protects not only you from infection (i.e. makes you immune to the illness), but also protects everyone in the community as a whole, by reducing the number of people who can catch the infections and pass them on to others. This is called ‘herd immunity’. This is especially important for anyone who is at risk of the complications of a flu infection, or if you are in contact with people who might become seriously ill if they get flu (e.g. very young children or older people).

Read more about the flu vaccine, who is eligible for free flu vaccines, and how we become immune to disease.

Simple ways to stop infection

Help to prevent the spread of infectious diseases by:

Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough

The viruses and bacteria that cause respiratory tract infections (RTIs) can spread from person to person. When someone with the infection coughs, sneezes, laughs or talks, the infection-carrying droplets become airborne and may infect others.

When you sneeze or cough, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your hand. Wash your hands after sneezing. This will stop any infected droplets on your hand being transferred to a surface that others may touch — such as a door knob or hand rail — potentially infecting them.

If you need to blow your nose, use a tissue and throw it in a bin as soon as you have finished with it.

A woman washing her hands with soap

Washing your hands frequently can help to prevent the spread of infections.
Image: Lisa S/

Washing your hands helps prevent infections

The simple act of washing your hands frequently using soap and running water very effectively reduces your chance of catching an RTI like a cold or flu, or spreading it to other people, especially young children. This will help to wash away viruses or bacteria that may be present on your hands or in your home.

Viruses and bacteria can be spread if you touch surfaces such as handrails or door knobs after going to the toilet and not washing your hands, or if you sneeze or cough into your hands and then touch a surface — that is why it is also important to wash your hands before eating or preparing food.

It is unclear whether using antiviral or antiseptic products as well as normal handwashing with soap is more effective than handwashing with soap alone.

Six steps to clean hands

Step 1: Wet your hands and lather with soap.
Step 2: Rub both palms together, with and without your fingers interlaced.
Step 3: Rub the back of one hand with the palm of the other with your fingers interlaced. Repeat this step using the other hand.
Step 4: Scrub your palms using your fingernails.
Step 5: Wash your thumbs.
Step 6: Rinse your hands thoroughly with running water and then dry them.

Watch our video to see the six steps to clean hands in action.

Keep your home clean

Bacteria and viruses that cause infection can survive on household surfaces. Good hygiene practices also include using household cleaning products to clean the surfaces in your home that are touched or used by others, and that could be a potential source of infection.

Our immune systems are faced with bacteria and viruses every day, most of which won’t cause serious infection. Good hygiene practices make it less likely that viruses or bacteria that may be present on your hands or in your home will cause infection.

  • Jefferson T, Del Mar C, Dooley L, Ferroni E, Al-Ansary LA, Bawazeer GA, van Driel ML, Nair S, Foxlee R, Rivetti A. Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2010, Issue 1. Art no.: CD006207. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD006207.pub3 (accessed 19 March 2012).