By Stephanie Stahl

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — ‘Tis the season for holiday germs with lots of festivities coming up this weekend. People getting together brings in an increased risk of spreading germs, but there’s one important way to protect yourself.

Cold and flu season came early in 2019 so many will be spending the holidays trying not to give or get the gift of germs from family and friends.

Scientists say it’s the simple, easy and best way to avoid getting sick or passing viruses and bacteria to others: washing hands.

But many are not doing it right, or even as often as we should.

“We want to wash for about 20 seconds or so, but that’s not from start to finish,” Dr. Frank Esper with the Cleveland Clinic said. “It’s 20 seconds of actually having the soap and lather on your hands and making sure that lather gets all over the place, under your fingernails, in between your fingers.”

Doctors say while soap and water are usually better, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are a good option, too.

Look for products that contain at least 60% alcohol, rub the gel all over until the hands are dry. That should also take about 20 seconds.

“A lot of kids, especially the smaller children, they are not able to use soap and water as well as older children,” Esper said. “And so for the smaller children in preschool or who are just learning themselves, actually using an alcohol-based rub has been shown to be better than soap and water.”

Washing your hands before, during and after preparing food is critical, and you should always wash your hands before you eat, after using the bathroom, before and after caring for someone who is sick and after blowing your own nose, coughing or sneezing.

“If you are sick yourself, that means not only is your nose running, but that means those germs are all over your fingers and hands so you should be washing your hands even more so,” Esper said.

So you and your loved ones can spread holiday cheer this season — not germs.

Research shows the temperature of the water you wash your hands doesn’t really matter in terms of disease prevention — warm or hot water doesn’t get rid of more germs.

Stephanie Stahl