How can we avoid colds and flu? Both—along with pneumonia, strep, chicken pox, and norovirus infections (“stomach flu”)—rise during winter months. Why are they more prevalent in winter? And how can we prevent a cold or flu naturally—before it starts? See our quick tips.
Why Do People Get Sick in Winter?
The answers are complex, elusive, and still evolving.
For a long time, experts told us that we catch more colds and flu in winter because we huddle together indoors in poorly ventilated surroundings—especially schoolchildren, who then pass along the infections to their families.
Skeptical scientists have since proposed many other theories, which may interact and overlap in complex ways.
- They range from winter’s shorter day length, Vitamin D deficiency (either or both of which may alter hormone balance, which in turn lowers immune response), climate and weather factors, physiological responses to cold air exposure, and the properties of some viruses themselves, which favor transmission in cold air and low humidity.
- Furthermore, the dry winter air slows the body’s normal process of cleaning the nasal mucous linings and instead dries them out, making them more susceptible to infection.
Self-Care Tips for Warding Off Colds and Flu
Regardless of the cause, research has confirmed the value of many self-care practices for helping ward off winter infections. Most of them won’t surprise you.
- Wash your hands—often. Most epidemiologists cite frequent handwashing as the number one defense against colds and many other common winter bugs. Effective handwashing means 20 seconds of vigorous rubbing with plain soap and water. See how to really wash your hands properly.
- Humidify inside and out. Keep your body well hydrated and your indoor air humidified. We add moisture to the air of our wood-heated home by hanging laundry indoors, keeping a lot of houseplants, and setting steamers on the stoves that release moisture gradually into the surrounding air. Drink plenty of liquids, especially fresh, pure water.
- Exercise (lightly). Studies show that exercise boosts the immune system to help your body fight infection. One caution: If you have a fever or anything more serious than a light cold, rest up and lay off the exercise.
- A corollary: Get outdoors more often, especially in midday. Many of us experience a better mood and a boost in energy when we get out on cold, sunny winter days. We’ve found that investing in full-spectrum (mimics the wavelengths in natural sunlight) compact fluorescent lights throughout our house goes a long way towards staving off winter depression (low energy, food cravings, lack of enthusiasm). Some scientists believe that daily exposure to full-spectrum light helps boost immune function, too.
- Eat your vegetables and fruit, especially lots of fruits with high vitamin C content, as well as veggies and grains that cleanse your system.Increase your daily intake of green, red, yellow and white vegetables. Eating a greater amount and variety of vegetables and fruit improves immune function.
- Cut back on sugars during wintertime. Limit to desserts to weekends on twice a week or whatever works for you. Also, cut back on alcoholic drinks.
- Get enough sleep. Don’t underestimate the value of a good night’s sleep. Sleeping well reduces your chances of heart problems and other chronic diseases, improves immune function, and even helps prevent obesity. Don’t brag about how little sleep you need. Go to bed early! Get your zzzzzz’s! Check out our tips for sleeping better.
- Reduce stress. Stress weakens the immune system, and winter adds several layers of stress for most of us: (e.g., dealing with storms and power outages, sick kids, less daylight, snow shoveling, and the sometimes-overwhelming demands of the winter holidays—including financial stress. Make this your season to explore stress-reducing strategies.
- Many people take supplements of vitamin D, vitamin C, echinacea, and other products reputed to boost immunity. Please check with your doctor or other trusted healthcare source before you try any new herb or vitamin supplement.
- Keep holiday food safe. Foodborne illnesses sicken 48 million Americans each year. Avoid becoming one of them with these food safety tips.
- Say “Yes” to a seasonal flu shot.
More Tips for Avoiding Colds and Flu in Public Places
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and face to prevent both flu and the cold. Don’t shake hands or touch surfaces and then bring your fingers to your nose or face.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze or cough. If you don’t have a tissue, cough into your upper sleeve. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it!
- Don’t use alcohol sanitizers in place of plain soap and water. Here’s why.
- If you’re in a public restroom, try to avoid touching frequently-touched places, like the faucet or door handle. Shut the faucet off with a paper towel and try to push the door open with your shoulder or use the paper towel to turn the knob.
- Use disposable towels or tissues instead of cloth handkerchiefs.
- Don’t bite your nails; it spreads germs.
- Don’t share food or drinks, even a taste.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects in your home or work space that may be contaminated with viruses that cause flu.
- When in doubt, hug instead of kiss, even if your heart says otherwise!
- Stay at home if you are sick. Your school or office will not appreciate you inadvertently spreading your illness!
- And yes, do your best to stay away from sick people (good luck!).
And here is some good old-fashioned advice from The 1852 Old Farmer’s Almanac:
”To avoid fall fevers, eat moderately, drink sparingly, lie not down on the damp earth, nor overheat yourself; but keep your temper, and change your clothes as the weather changes.”