Three members of a family wash their hands.

The new coronavirus that first emerged in China and is now spreading in several countries has left some Americans suddenly fearful of crowded trains, large gatherings, and communal spaces.  

Luckily, the same kinds of precautions you’d take to protect yourself from colds and flu will also help reduce your risk of contracting the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19), according to Jesse Goodman, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Georgetown University.

Here, some of the most important steps to take to stay safe from all sorts of respiratory viruses.

Seriously, Wash Your Hands

There’s a good reason admonitions to wash your hands are so frequently repeated. Handwashing is critical in stopping the spread of respiratory viruses and other bugs, and it’s one of several measures the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for reducing your risk of COVID-19, flu, and more.

More on the Coronavirus

When should you wash your hands? At a minimum, do so after you use the bathroom, before you eat, and after you blow your nose, cough, or sneeze, according to the CDC. 

It’s also important to use proper technique. That means not just rinsing your hands for a few seconds in the sink, Goodman says. Use soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds.

In your home, it’s a good idea to regularly clean frequently touched surfaces, like doorknobs, handles, and counters.

Keep Sanitizer Handy

If you’re in a situation where you need to wash your hands but aren’t able to get to a sink—such as after using public transit—an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol is your next best option

With flu still circulating widely in many states, cleaning your hands after being in crowded spaces or after touching surfaces in public areas makes sense, Goodman says, and “hand sanitizer is a good, portable way to meet that need.” 

Along with washing or cleaning your hands, try to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

“Sometimes you can arbitrarily pick up germs in between hand hygiene cleaning, so it’s key to try to keep your hands away from your face and eyes,” says Connie Steed, M.S.N., R.N., president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC). That’s how viruses can get from your hands into your system, making you sick.

Reduce Close Contact

Depending on where you live, your work, school, or city may be implementing “social distancing” measures such as cancellation of events or moving to online formats for work and school. Follow any instructions and recommendations from your local health officials. 

The CDC says that people at high risk of serious illness due to COVID-19—including people 60 and older and anyone with a chronic medical condition like diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease—should avoid crowds, cruises, and non-essential air travel. And if COVID-19 is circulating widely in your community, stay home as much as possible.

Anyone who is sick should stay home from work and other social situations. Employers should make sure their employees know they can stay home if they’re ill, Steed says.  

And in general, “you should try to avoid people who may be coughing, sneezing, or ill,” says Goodman. (If you have to cough or sneeze yourself, be sure to use a tissue or cough into the crook of your elbow—and clean your hands right after.)

According to the CDC, respiratory viruses are most often spread between people who are 6 feet apart or less, so that’s a safe distance to keep in mind. 

You Don't Need a Mask if You're Healthy

The CDC says that mask use isn’t necessary for healthy people. It’s recommended only for those who are sick themselves and for healthcare workers or others caring for people who have COVID-19. Health officials are asking healthy people not to buy masks in order to save supplies for hospitals and clinics.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include the latest coronavirus protection information. It was originally published Feb. 27.