Cold and flu season is upon us, so who better to take advice from than people who see sneezing, hacking patients every day? You may already know a few ways to avoid getting sick—wash your hands, get enough sleep, stay hydrated—but there are others you may not have thought of. (When’s the last time you disinfected your smartphone, for example?) Here, doctors and nurses give their best tips and advice for boosting your immune system.
1. Rethink that extra drink.
You don’t have to skip that glass of wine with dinner; just think twice before you down the whole bottle. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, studies have shown that excessive alcohol suppresses the immune system by reducing the ability of white blood cells to effectively kill bacteria—so you’d be wise to stick to the recommended one drink per day for women. Alcohol is also dehydrating and can disrupt your sleep—two more ways to lower your defenses. (Already sick? Romy Block, MD, an endocrinologist and assistant professor at Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, says that a single drink can lengthen the duration of the virus by a few days.)
2. Steer clear of sugar.
“Personally, I feel better and avoid getting as sick when I skip having those gummy bears for a snack,” says Michelle Katz, author of Healthcare Made Easy. Take her advice and resist reaching for that soda—or cookie or candy bar—especially during cold and flu season. That’s because, like alcohol, sugar inhibits white blood cells from engulfing bacteria and viruses. According to Katz, women should aim for 6 teaspoons or fewer a day, and 9 teaspoons or fewer for men (a 12-ounce can of soda contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar).
3. Get vaccinated already.
This year will likely be an especially bad one when it comes to the flu. The dominant strain going around—H3N2—is one of the nastier varieties, known to cause twice as many hospitalizations and deaths as other strains, according to the CDC. And while the current vaccine was designed to protect against H3N2 (plus several other strains), the virus has mutated, making the vaccine less effective—but that doesn’t mean you should skip the shot. “Out of everything you can do to prevent yourself from getting sick, this is probably No. 1,” says Joel Blass, MD, medical director at Workmen’s Circle Multicare Center in the Bronx. “Even if it’s totally not on the mark, you’re still protecting yourself against three viruses that could already be out there.”
West Valley Urgent Care has vaccinations on hand. Walk in and get your shot.
4. Wash everything you touch.
When’s the last time you washed your washing machine? According to Shawn Westadt Mueller, RN, director of infection prevention and control at Medstar Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore, “bacteria likes warm, dark, and moist places, so your washing machine could harbor germs, especially over time.” Her advice: Put two tablespoons of white vinegar where the detergent usually goes, and run the “clean” cycle.
And how often do you clean your phones, microwave, keyboard, doorknobs, light switches, bed rails, remote controls, and children’s toys? Not often enough, most likely. Use soap and water or alcohol-based disinfecting wipes during your regular weekly cleaning—even more often during cold and flu season—to stop the spread of germs on these high-touch surfaces. There’s even the PhoneSoap Charger, which sanitizes your cell phone with UV light in less than five minutes.
5. Pop probiotics.
Approximately 60% to 70% of your entire immune system is located in your gut. As Alexander Rinehart, a certified nutrition specialist, puts it, “Your gut is a barrier between the outside world and your body’s internal world.” This barrier is covered in part by healthy bacteria, which prevents infections and pathogens from being absorbed. While studies are ongoing, many—including one recently published in the British Journal of Nutrition—show promise in the effectiveness of probiotic supplements at preventing respiratory illness like the common cold. In addition to supplements, you can also incorporate probiotics into your diet by way of kombucha (fermented tea) or kimchi (fermented vegetables) which, as Rinehart puts it, “may be more ideal than the sugar-laden yogurts in the grocery aisle.”
6. Don’t even think about biting your nails.
Unless you’re constantly washing your hands (and your phone and your keyboard), your fingers are probably covered in germs that can infect your portal entries, like your eyes, nose, and throat, says New York-based doctor Louis J. Morledge, MD. Plus, Germs build up underneath your nails, and biting them is a surefire way to let bacteria into your body, says Scott S. Topiol, RN, and president of Murseworld.com.
7. Exercise—but not too hard.
“After moderate to intense exercise—say, running for 40 to 60 minutes without stopping—there is a 72-hour window during which your body is severely distressed, and that’s a time when people are susceptible to getting sick,” says Scott Weiss, MD, who has treated athletes in the NFL, NHL, WNBA, and was part of the sports medicine team at the Athens and Beijing Olympic Games. “You have to let your body recover and not force it to work hard while it’s in a weakened state.” According to a study from Appalachian State University, heavy exertion increases the athlete’s risk of upper respiratory tract infections because of negative changes in immune function and elevation of the stress hormones, epinephrine, and cortisol. On the flip side, research shows that easy to moderate exercise actually boosts your immune system.
8. Hold your breath.
Most germs enter your body through your nose or mouth—so if you’re around someone who’s sick or next to someone who sneezes, avoid taking big inhalations. “Just being conscious of your breath around a sick person can help keep you from getting infected,” says Weiss. A recent study released from MIT revealed that coughs and sneezes—and their potentially infectious droplets—travel much farther distances than previously thought. A good rule of thumb: if you see or hear someone sneeze nearby, hold your breath for 10 to 15 seconds.
9. Get some fresh air even when it’s freezing out.
Getting some fresh air is advice that dates all the way back to Florence Nightingale. “One reason we get sick when it’s colder is because we’re sharing more inside air,” says Mueller. “It’s not like when you’re on the beach and everyone has their own space.” Mueller recommends just opening a window or, better yet, walking out your front door (just be sure to bundle up). Also invest in an air purifier. There are some filter-less models on the market designed specifically to remove or inactivate bacteria and viruses. The Virus Zero, for example, neutralizes airborne contaminants (influenza, bacteria, fungi, allergens) and the RxAir destroys pathogens by using germicidal UV lights.
The original article appeared in Prevention.com. By Brooke Porter Katz.