We’re no strangers to blizzards and slush-covered roads, so even though they present a worrisome obstacle for a handful of days each winter, our number-one cold-weather concern is a bit more personal: how do we stay healthy when everyone around us seems to be down for the count with some form of cold or flu? Luckily, it’s possible to avoid catching the nasties by adhering to some simple routines—and saying no to a few bad habits.
Get a good night’s sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation can cause a host of physical problems, among them reduced resistance to viruses and bacteria. So set aside a minimum of seven hours a night, adhere to a regular wind-down routine (sans smartphone or tablet, both of which can stimulate the brain and even interfere with brain waves during sleep), and make sure your room is warm enough. This doesn’t mean jacking up the heat, which may actually disrupt the body’s natural heating and cooling cycles. Instead, add layers of bedding—we love a duvet, blanket, and throw over our sheets—that can be peeled back if you get too warm, and pulled up to cozy perfection.
Adopt a hands-off policy. You can’t avoid helping your kids into their school or snow gear, shaking the new boss’s hand, or opening the fridge to take out your lunch or ingredients for dinner. But you can wash your hands, and wipe down many hard surfaces (think: refrigerator handles, remote controls, and kitchen-cabinet handles) with bleach wipes. For times when you know you have to touch a questionable surface—we’re looking at you, bathroom-door handles; conference-room chairs; and pretty much anything on a plane, bus, or train—protect yourself by using a tissue or paper towel as a barrier between your hand and the surface. Some folks prefer to use the bottom edge of your sleeve, but this only introduces the ickies to your clothing, where you can easily transfer them to your face. Which brings us to . . .
Don’t touch your face. Remember that scene from Contagion where Kate Winslet’s epidemiologist character says that the average person touches his or her face 2,000 times a day? Turns out, according to a variety of medical studies, that this figure is pretty close to accurate. Short of snacking on a virus sandwich, touching your face—eyes, nose, ears, and lips—is the single best way to introduce germs into your system. So unless you’ve just washed your hands, keep them away from your moneymaker.
Wash your hands. A lot. Dry winter skin is a bear, but it’s worth it if it means staying healthy during the coldest and most physically challenging time of the year. Washing both sides of your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom or handling raw meat or fish is a no-brainer, but how about all those other times we touch surfaces that could harbor bacteria and viruses? Make a detour to the sink any time you handle a phone (especially someone else’s), borrow a friend’s pen, or place your hands on the desk of a coworker on or conference table. Stash a tube of your favorite hand lotion nearby or in your purse to mitigate dryness. And if you’ll be in a situation, like a business meeting, where you can’t just get up and rinse off, carry a travel-size bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer with you for quickie clean-ups.
Drink a continuous supply of liquids. The classic doctor’s instruction to drink plenty of water doesn’t just apply to people who’ve already come down with a cold or flu. The better hydrated you are, the better your immune system can fight off any invaders. But skip the soda, juices, and Gatorade; they contain way more sugar—an immunosuppressant—than you need in a single day. Instead sip on tea and water; you can even add a few taps of powdered immune supplement, like Emergen-C, to each serving if you prefer a bit of flavoring. Eating a bowl of low-sodium soup at lunch or dinner will also help ensure that you meet your daily liquids requirement.
Reach for healthy foods and snacks. You’ve no doubt heard this one a gazillion times, but during cold and flu season, it’s more important than ever to provide your body with immune-boosting foods, like vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. It’s a little easier to cut back on the sugar-laden snacks now that the holidays are over, so stuff your shopping cart with healthy foods like roasted, unsalted nuts and seeds, particularly almonds and walnuts; fresh fruit (wash them first if they can’t be peeled!), especially berries and grapefruit; mushrooms; oysters; cabbage; kale; garlic; spinach; sweet potatoes; avocadoes; and green tea.
Get a flu shot. Lots of people skip this simple step every year—generally for fear of exposure to mercury—and end up regretting it; according to the CDC, influenza is still the eighth leading killer annually of people in the United States, and it’s one of the easiest to prevent. Though most multidose vials of flu vaccine contain thimerosol, a mercury-based preservative that prevents the growth of bacteria inside vaccine bottles, single-dose units and live-attenuated vaccines (aka, nasal-spray vaccines) don’t contain these preservatives. You can request either of the latter if thimerosol is a concern, and keep in mind that dozens of studies have linked the chemical only to minor undesirable effects like swelling at the injection site.
Just say no to get-togethers with sniffling, coughing friends and coworkers. Don’t worry about looking antisocial or like a germ freak; most people will understand that you’re trying to stay healthy, and won’t mind if you reschedule lunch or after-work plans. It will limit the transmission of viruses and bacteria, and will even give sick friends the opportunity to get a little extra rest—especially if they’re the type who don’t want to let you down by canceling plans.
While there isn’t a single, guaranteed way to avoid catching a cold or flu, by following a few easy rules and being aware of your surroundings and habits, you’ll stand the best chances of staying healthy through the toughest part of winter. What’s your favorite stay-healthy tip for cold and flu season?