If there's one thing that's inevitable each season, it's a case of the sniffles. There's no bypassing colds and the flu—both are respiratory illnesses caused by viruses, explains Pritish Tosh, M.D., an infectious disease physician at the Mayo Clinic—but there are ways to bolster your body's immune system.
To effectively ward off this season's sicknesses—without holing up in your house—use these preemptive tips.
The most important guard against the flu is getting the vaccine, says Yoko Furuya, M.D., medical director of infection prevention and control at New York Presbyterian Hospital. The flu shot keeps you protected for about six to eight months, so aim to get it in October. That's well in advance of peak flu season, which typically strikes in January or February. Needle-wary? Nasal spray and short-needle options are available.
Flu viruses enter your body via your nose, eyes, or mouth—and contaminated hands are most likely how they’ll get there. Lather up before eating or handling food, and wash more frequently when you hear hacking and sneezing on the other side of the cubicle. When using soap and water, it’s the friction that gets rid of germs, so the more you scrub, the better. Lather up for at least 20 seconds (about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice) or keep an alcohol-based gel, like Purell, on hand.
When a co-worker, significant other, or roommate is sick, wipe down doorknobs, keyboards, and phones with a disinfectant to help kill germs before they have a chance to spread and make you sick, too.
Keeping enough fluids in your body lets blood circulate more freely, which allows flu- and cold-fighting white blood cells to properly position themselves to fight off infection. Aim for the usual eight glasses of water a day. Water-rich fruits and vegetables, like watermelon, cucumbers, and grapefruit, do count, but dehydrating liquids (i.e., those with caffeine or alcohol) do not. Especially during flu season, pair each alcoholic drink with a glass of water to help stay hydrated, suggests Furuya.
Flu season is not the time to skimp on your daily dose of vegetables, healthy fats, and whole grains. A balance of the vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes you need from a well-balanced diet helps keep your immune system in top shape, Furuya says. Research also shows extra vitamin C may help lower the risk of catching a cold for people who expose their bodies to extreme stress—think distance running or long hours on the ski slopes—while other studies suggest extra C may lessen the severity of symptoms if you do catch a cold. Bottom line: It can't hurt. Load up on cantaloupe, citrus fruits, mango, pineapple, green and red pepper, spinach, and tomato—or pop a 500mg supplement daily.
Studies show regular, moderate exercise improves circulation, which boosts the immune system and makes you less likely to get sick. Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity a day. But if you do catch a bug, take a few days off so your body can use that energy to kick your virus, advises Furuya.
One more reason to ditch the cigs: Smoking affects both the upper and lower respiratory tracts—and makes you more likely to get infections such as the flu, colds, or pneumonia if you get exposed to a virus. Around a lot of second-hand smoke? Its effects can put you at the same risk, so choose your friends (or after-work hangouts) wisely during cold and flu season.
Clocking seven to eight hours of sleep a night helps keep your immune system working at maximum capacity. Sleep gives your immune system a chance to crank out white blood cells, which kill germs. And if you start to feel under the weather, let yourself hit the snooze button when you can—extra shut-eye gives the body more time to fix itself.
Schedule time for you, whether that means hitting the yoga mat, going for a run, or plugging in your iPod. Both mental and physical stress can throw immune system-influencing hormones off kilter, making you more likely to pick up a cold or the flu. Be on the watch for stress that causes headaches, changes your appetite, or affects your sleep—all are indicators that your body’s having trouble coping (and you may be overdoing it).
That's a fancy way of saying cover up when you cough! Cold and flu viruses spread via “respiratory droplets," which land on surfaces, get picked up, and eventually make their way to your eyes, nose, or mouth. Catch your cough or sneeze with a tissue or use your elbow. But don't use your hand—that just increases the odds of spreading the virus.
And for when a virus does strike…
If you have a fever over 100.5 or other bothersome symptoms, stay home and rest, says Furuya. Coughing and sneezing are the easiest ways to share whatever’s making you sick. Plenty of rest and fluids should kick most colds and flus within a few days, but if symptoms don’t begin to improve, or they worsen, within three days, see a doctor.