We’ve reached the time of year when people start to despair over the fact that winter is not only here, but it appears that it's not ready to leave just yet. And that means cold and flu season continues to be in full effect.
Unfortunately, both colds and the flu are highly contagious. "The flu is spread by droplets that come from coughing or sneezing from an infected person, and these droplets land in the mouth or nose of another person,” says Dr. Denise Patz, an internal medicine physician at the Medical Offices of Manhattan. Meanwhile, the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) says cold viruses spread via the air and close personal contact.
But here's some better news: By implementing some basic flu and cold prevention strategies, you can seriously decrease your chances of coming down with the sniffles (or worse). “A little bit of self-care will go a long way this winter in preventing illness and recovering quickly,” says Paul Mitchell, MD, vice president of medical affairs and medical director at DispatchHealth. Here are 15 ways your MD is doing exactly that.
Keep your hands clean
“The number one way to prevent the spread of flu is hand washing,” says Drew Massengill, RN, BSN, an infection preventionist at Natividad Hospital in Salinas, CA. “I can’t speak to that enough. Our hands are very dirty, and a lot of people cough into their hands or wipe their noses constantly. The CDC recommends that hand washing last 20 seconds—about the time it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice—and make sure you wash your thumbs, the backs of your hands, and your cuticles.”
If at any point you don’t have access to soap and running water, hand wipes or sanitisers can do in a pinch. “I carry hand sanitiser with me everywhere I go and use it frequently throughout the day,” says Kumar Dharmarajan, MD, chief scientific officer at Clover Health. “The reality is, there are a lot of potential bugs out there, whether it’s the common cold or stomach flu, so it is important to keep your hands as clean as possible.”
And keep your hands off your face
“Besides frequent hand washing, the next best thing to do to prevent colds or the flu is to keep your fingers and hands away from your face,” says Kim Langdon, MD, a doctor at Medzino. “Any bacteria or virus can live on the surface of your skin without causing any problems but once they're transported through the nasal passages or mouth, they become infectious.” That means it’s a good idea to avoid touching your eyes, mouth, or nose.
Make sleep a priority
“The biggest thing I do is get the right amount of sleep,” says Dr. Michael Breus, author of The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan. To that end, Breus says he makes sure to maintain a consistent sleep schedule, exercise on a regular basis, limit his caffeine and alcohol intake, and enjoy 15 minutes of sunlight each morning in order to support his circadian clock. “On mornings where there is little sun, I use a light therapy box,” he says.
Limit exposure to sick people
“The best thing is avoidance,” says Dr. Kristine Arthur, an internist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “If you have the option of working from home–take it. If you can work in an area that is less crowded or has less contact with people, do it. When shopping, I try to avoid peak busy times when stores are crowded, and you are exposed to a higher number of possibly sick shoppers.”
If you’re sick or interacting with people who might be, then do your best to avoid shaking hands, says Dr. Richard Honaker, chief medical officer at Your Doctors Online. “The Japanese bowing practice should be used worldwide as it is sterile and respectful,” he says. “Also, surprisingly, a hug is safer than a handshake when it comes to transmission of microorganisms.”
Beware of using shared items and surfaces
Dr. Arthur says it’s a good idea to avoid sharing utensils, dishes, hand towels, and other shared items. It's also best to eschew open containers of communal treats, like donuts and chocolates. “Avoid these at all costs as they have been exposed to coughs, sneezes, and even possible touching,” she says. She also recommends using a paper towel or tissue to open doors or push elevator buttons.
When it comes to surfaces in your home or workspace, it’s a good idea to “wipe down common surfaces that are frequently touched, such as your keyboard, phone, doorknobs and door handles, light switches, refrigerator handles, elevator buttons, and grocery cart handles,” says Dr. Wilnise Jasmin, MBA, a board-certified family medicine physician and preventive medicine trainee at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Sanitise surfaces effectively
“Some people will wipe down a surface (with an alcohol-based wipe), then they will take a towel and wipe it off, and you should never do that,” says Dr. Thomas S. Ahrens, PhD, RN, FAAN, a research scientist who works in critical care in the Washington University/BJC Healthcare system. “The goal is to make sure the surface stays wet for a while. We typically say leave any cleaner or sanitiser on for 45 seconds. Then, you can be pretty confident that you’ve killed anything.”
Get plenty of vitamin D
“Vitamin D is well known for its role in bone and muscle health but also has an important role in maintaining a healthy immune system,” says Dr. Chirag Shah, former medical director of Accesa Health, a medical centre in Southern California. “Vitamin D is thought to influence specific types of immune responses directly, and a vitamin D deficiency is associated with a higher likelihood of getting an infection. Vitamin D levels can be boosted through moderate sunlight exposure and eating foods rich in vitamin D… or else quality vitamin D supplements.”
Educate your family about germs and practicing good hygiene
“If family members are sick at home, make sure everyone covers their mouth and nose when they sneeze [and] then washes their hands,” says Dr. Kelly Cawcutt, an infectious diseases & critical care physician at the University of Nebraska Medical Centre. Family members should also be aware that it’s smart to clean frequently touched surfaces often in order to help prevent others at home from becoming ill.
Avoid bringing germs home
When you arrive home after having been out and about, be mindful about where you place items that you’ve brought home with you.
“Be aware that purses, backpacks, or other items from work or school may have been on the floor or another dirty area,” says Dr. Arthur. “Don’t set them down on your kitchen counter, dining table, or food prep area. Consider having any little kids that may be in daycare or elementary school change clothes completely when they get home, as they are often sitting on the floor or playing with toys and other items that may not be clean,” she adds.
Dr. Robert Segal, co-founder of Labfinder, agrees. “I also make it a point to change my clothes before I go home since I don’t want my family to get infected,” he says.
Take precautions when traveling by airplane
“Among all infections, the flu is the most prevalent among travellers,” says Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Mercy Kansas City. For this reason, she advocates for taking several precautions while traveling.
“If you have an option, avoid sitting next to someone [on a plane] who appears to have respiratory symptoms,” she says. “The improvements in air circulation are said to limit the spread of small-particle aerosols around the infected passenger, so moving away by just a couple seats may help.”
Additionally, she recommends that flyers “avoid aisle seats when flying, since these are high-touch areas for those boarding planes.” She also suggests bringing along alcohol wipes to clean the tray table, armrests, seat pockets, windows, overhead bins, taps, sinks, and toilet handles. After wiping down surfaces, apply hand sanitiser. Dr. Jackson also advises against placing any items in the front pocket of your seat. Most passengers use the pockets as a place to stash trash, and the area is cloth so it can't be cleaned with wipes.
Get the flu shot
“The best thing you can do to avoid the flu is to get a flu shot,” says Dr. Matthew Mullarky, an emergency medicine physician at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, CA. “This is particularly true for patients who suffer from chronic medical problems such as asthma, congestive heart failure, diabetes, those over 65 years of age and less than two years old," he says. These patients have the highest risk of flu complications. If you have concerns regarding the appropriateness of the flu vaccine for you, consult your family physician.
Don't be too proud to wear a mask
Sure, masks may not be the most fashionable accessories, but they can be an effective means for preventing the transmission of infectious diseases. Adeeti Gupta, OB/GYN and founder of Walk In GYN Care, says she wears a mask if patients or family members show up with symptoms such as coughing. Even for laypeople, masks may be useful while traveling on public transport or tending to a sick family member.
Eat a healthy diet
“The best way to prevent viral infections is to have a healthy diet rich in vitamin C, zinc, magnesium, and other phytonutrients that help fight infection and keep our immune system healthy,” says Dr. Charnetta Colton-Poole, FAAP, a pediatrician.
Probiotics found in certain foods may also help maintain a healthy immune system, says Dr. Tania Elliott, clinical instructor of medicine at NYU Langone Health. “I eat lots of yogurt to get a healthy dose of probiotics,” she says. “While there isn't strong evidence that it will protect against the flu, some evidence says it helps shorten the duration of a cold, and there is no harm in stocking up on good bacteria found in foods we eat.”
“Research and my own personal and professional experience has found that the mineral magnesium works as a powerful immune system booster to fight and/or prevent colds and flu,” says Dr. Carolyn Dean, ND, medical advisory board member at the Nutritional Magnesium Association. Magnesium increases the formation of antibodies (immune response) and helps your cells become more active to protect themselves from microbial and viral attacks.
Zinc may also prove beneficial, says Dr. Elliott. "Zinc has some immune-boosting properties, and it can help shorten the duration of a cold if you get one, so I like to have it on-board and already in my system prior to the start of flu season.”
A lesser-known supplement called NAC could also be of use. “I take NAC (N Acetyl Cysteine) 600 milligrams twice a day,” says Felice Gersh, MD, OB/GYN and author of PCOS SOS. “Studies have shown this amino acid derivative reduces cold and flu outbreaks and reduces their severity. NAC is a precursor to the master antioxidant and detoxifier of the body, glutathione.”
Building a strong immune system also comes down to practicing self-care. And that means maintaining a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, exercising regularly, and so on.
But self-care doesn’t just stop there. “Make time for relaxation activities including yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, which gives you some alone time and an opportunity to relax from the stress of everyday life,” says Sherry Ross, MD, OB/GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Centre in Santa Monica, California.
This article originally appeared on Prevention