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How to Avoid Getting Sick at the Doctor’s Office

Minimize the risk of contagious illnesses in the waiting room

Three adults and two children sit in a doctor's waiting room.

Minimize the risk of contagious illnesses in the waiting room

We go to the doctor to get well or make sure we stay healthy, but doctors’ offices and waiting rooms are frequently filled with sick people. You want to be careful even if you are sick already.

Remember, you don’t have to go home with a new contagious bug along with the ache or illness that spurred your visit. By taking the following precautions, most people should be able to minimize the risk of getting sick — or sicker — while waiting to see the doctor.

Wash your hands

Most illnesses occur when we have contact with surfaces where viruses live, such as magazines, doorknobs and elevator buttons, and then we touch our face, mouth, nose or eyes, letting the viruses and bacteria in through our mucous membranes. To prevent spread of contagious conditions, keep your hands away from your face until you wash them.

“The most effective way of preventing the majority of illnesses we come into contact with is washing your hands,” says Shelese Newmark, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center, Carlsbad. “Always make an effort not to touch any part of your face without using hand sanitizer first. Your immune system will thank you.”

Take advantage of hand sanitizer lotions or gels available in most waiting rooms or bring your own, and wash hands thoroughly with warm water after your visit is completed.

Get a flu shot

Prior to setting foot in a waiting room, get a flu shot. Flu shots can help prevent illness altogether or at least lessen the severity and length of symptoms if the flu does take hold. Most doctors recommend the shot for everyone — even those who don’t plan to visit a doctor’s office.

“Flu shots are not just for children or seniors,” says Dr. Newmark. “A quick flu shot can save almost anyone from days of illness and discomfort.” Flu shots are available at doctors’ offices and many pharmacies. 

Be an early bird

Make your appointment for early in the day, when the waiting room is cleanest. More patients mean more germs

Consider the season

Try to avoid waiting rooms altogether during cold and flu season if possible. 

“Schedule routine physical exams and tests before or after the fall and winter months, when fewer contagious illnesses are being spread around,” says Dr. Newmark. 

If a visit during cold and flu season is unavoidable, try to schedule appointments first thing in the morning, before other patients arrive, or late in the day after others have left.

Wear a mask

Today, a growing number of family medicine and pediatrician offices have “sick” and “well” waiting areas to help keep healthy people healthy. If that isn’t an option, consider wearing a face mask; often, doctor’s offices and hospitals will provide masks to patients who request them.

If no mask is available, hold a clean tissue over the nose and mouth while in the waiting room, and avoid sitting near anyone who looks or sounds ill.

Bring toys from home

Visiting a pediatrician? Have children bring toys from home instead of using the community toys in the waiting room. Remind children to keep their hands away from their faces, and clean their hands as well.

Don’t let them wander around the waiting room; gently try to keep them away from other kids or adults who may be ill. Also bring your own book or magazine to read and keep it in your lap, not on a table or chair.

Wait wisely

Finally, if the waiting room is especially crowded or small, consider waiting in the hallway, outdoors or in the car, and asking office staff to call when the doctor is ready — especially if the doctor is running behind or the wait will be considerable.