If you haven’t been sick this season, consider yourself lucky. The Lompoc Valley seems to be experiencing an epidemic of cold and flu viruses. From my 3-month-old niece, to my mother, my co-worker and my workout partners, everyone seems to be coughing, sneezing or feeling generally miserable. Part of the problem is that sneezes and coughs are explosive little germ spreaders. A single sneeze can send 2,000 to 5,000 germ-filled droplets into the air at up to 100 miles per hour. It gets worse. Some people do cover their mouth while sneezing, but use their hand to do so. The intention is good but the germs are now on their hands. It is better to sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow. According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, depending on the type, germs can live from a few minutes to 48 hours or more. A man who sneezes into his hands will spread those germs to every public surface his hands touch — until he washes his hands. Door knobs, escalators hand rails, keyboards, gas station nozzles and pens are just a few things he might handle. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say hand washing is the single most effective way to prevent the transmission of disease. Hands should be washed thoroughly and often to avoid being infected by the bacteria and viruses lurking on common surfaces. Bacteria are tiny, one-celled creatures that can make you sick. Bacteria can live and reproduce inside and outside of your body. Not all bacteria are bad, but some common infections that are attributed to bacteria include pneumonia, strep throat, ear infections, and dental cavities. Viruses differ from bacteria in that they need to be inside your body to grow and reproduce. But like bacteria, when a virus gets inside your body, it can spread and make you sick. Viruses are the cause of illnesses like the flu, chickenpox and measles. Most viruses don’t last very long if they’re not inside a living thing, but some can survive on those door knobs long enough to infect you. If you want to avoid getting sick, make a concerted effort to wash your hands. Use soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds with robust friction. Wash your hands even more often when someone in your home is sick. If soap and water aren’t handy, antibacterial gels and lotions are OK for up to five uses if your hands are not visibly dirty. Keeping your hands clean takes effort but is far more convenient than getting sick.