According to the CDC, 22 million school days are lost annually in the United States because of the common cold. Besides being miserable, colds spread easily through the air and surfaces, and although we think of them as inconvenient, they can lead to much more serious conditions like pneumonia. Similarly, the flu can be serious as well, killing around 56,000 people annually. Sometimes the prevalence of these diseases makes it seem inevitable that you and your family can't escape the same illnesses that hit everyone every year. But in reality, there are many things you can do to protect yourself and your family from sickness.
Neither colds nor the flu is entirely preventable. However, there are lots of simple ways you can decrease your risk. You can also lessen the severity and length of your illness when you do fall ill. Many of the methods for protecting yourself are simple lifestyle changes that can have a huge impact on your overall wellness. Read on for some of the top tips for preventing colds and flu in your family.
Get Your Flu Vaccine
Many people skip out on their annual flu vaccine. Some people hear that the vaccine is not 100% effective and decide that means it’s not worth the trouble to get vaccinated. This is absolutely not true. First, the flu vaccine reduces your chance of illness by between 40-60% percent depending on the year. The reason its effectiveness varies from year to year is that, like the common cold, the flu virus mutates every year, producing a slightly new strain that is just different enough to reinfect someone that has had it before. Either way, having the vaccine greatly reduces the likelihood you will develop the flu.
Further, even if you get the flu after taking the vaccine, this doesn’t mean getting the vaccine was a waste. On the contrary, you will likely develop a much milder form of the flu and your chances of recovery are much higher thanks to the vaccine you received. This is especially true for children, who are significantly less likely to be hospitalized for flu if they have received the vaccine before becoming ill.
Another common fear is that the flu vaccine can cause people to develop the flu. This is not true. The flu virus cannot cause you to develop the flu because it is made from an inactivated virus. This means that a flu virus is grown in a lab, killed, and then used to make the vaccine. Because the vaccine is made of dead flu germs, it cannot cause disease. While the virus can cause mild fatigue, fever, pain at the injection site, or body aches, this does not mean that you have the flu, and these symptoms are much less severe than the actual flu itself.
Eat Nutritious And Varied Foods
One of the most important steps for staying healthy is to eat a balanced diet. For one thing, eating 10 or more servings of fruits and veggies per day has been shown to reduce your risk of heart disease by 24%, your risk of stroke by 33%, your risk of cardiovascular disease by 28%, and your risk of cancer by 13%. Chronic, preventable diseases wear down your immune system, so preventing these conditions is an important step to fighting other illnesses like the common cold and flu. Healthy food also provides more energy to power your immune system.
Varying the kinds of fruits and veggies you eat adds an extra bonus to your healthy eating. Try to choose fresh produce from across the color spectrum because foods of different colors tend to contain different nutrients. By eating lots of different colored foods, you are more likely to get a wide range of vitamins and minerals, decreasing your chance of a deficiency.
Beyond fruits and veggies, some other foods can also help boost your immune system. Foods like green tea can lower your blood pressure, making your body run more efficiently. Other foods like berries that are naturally high in antioxidants help fight unnecessary inflammation in your body. And foods high in zinc—such as meat, fish, and nuts—can help your immune system remain stronger. Zinc can even help you recover faster from some illnesses like the common cold.
Get Enough Sleep
You’ve heard this before, probably many times. But sleep really is one of the most important ways to reduce your risk of contracting a cold or the flu. During sleep, our body repairs small amounts of damage it sustained during the day. Without these repairs, our body becomes weaker at fighting germs.
Beyond keeping us healthy, getting sleep actually aids our bodies in recovering from illness as well. When our bodies fight illness, they release proteins called cytokines. These cytokines help cells communicate, coordinating our immune system’s response to germs. But lack of sleep suppresses the release of cytokines, meaning different parts of our immune system don’t communicate as well as they could.
Although getting the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night is important, researchers say another important factor is getting good quality sleep. When you don’t get good quality sleep, your body may not go through its complete sleep cycle, meaning your body doesn’t reap the full benefits of sleep. Sticking to a regular sleep schedule (even on weekends), introducing a soothing bedtime routine, and keeping your bedroom a comfortable temperature are all things that can improve your quality of sleep, helping you resist illness or improve more quickly when you do become ill.
Many people underestimate the role that exercise plays in keeping their bodies fighting fit against germs, but regular exercise has a huge impact on a person’s overall health. Not only does exercise help prevent many common diseases that can weaken a person’s overall well being, but it may actually help expel bacteria and viruses from the body. For instance, heavy breathing from working out aids in flushing the airways, and an increase in body temperature exercise can slow or prevent the growth of some bacteria. Regular, moderate exercise is enough to help regulate the immune system, making your body more resistant to both cold and flu.
Kick Unhealthy Habits
Unhealthy habits can wreak havoc on your immune system. Smoking, for instance, introduces unhealthy chemicals into the body that suppress its natural immune response. Additionally, smoking damages the small hairs in your nose that filter out pollen dust, and germs. Without these hairs, more of those contaminants will enter your body, making it easier for germs to enter the body.
Smoking is not the only habit that can weaken your immune system. Drinking too much alcohol can damage some of the cells that power the immune system, leaving your body less able to fight off bacteria and viruses that find their way inside. In fact, the effect of alcohol on the immune system is so strong that some studies show that vaccines are less effective in heavy drinkers .
Some studies suggest that over-indulging in sugar can have a negative effect on the immune system’s ability to fight off infection. When bacteria or viruses enter the body, the immune system releases phagocytes, a type of cell that “cleans up” the body by removing damaged cells and waste. The phagocytes also destroy germs, too. However, immediately after consuming sugar, the body’s phagocytes become less able to perform their job. While this effect does wear off, consuming large amounts of sugar over time can leave your body more prone to infection, as well as more prone to diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions that leave your body more vulnerable to the cold and flu.
Practice Hygiene And Cleaning Habits That Remove Germs
Good personal hygiene can go a long way toward keeping your body healthy. Bathing or showering daily helps remove bacteria and viruses from your body, but even simply washing your hands can make a huge difference in your likelihood of catching that bug that everyone else has. Always use soap and (when possible) warm water. Lather and rinse your hands for a total of 20 seconds, or for approximately the length of the “happy birthday” song. Soap helps removes the natural oils on your hands that provide a nice home for bacteria, and good old fashioned soap and water are actually much more effective than hand sanitizer.
Another part of healthy hygiene habits is wearing clean clothes daily and washing clothes in laundry detergent. Wearing the same clothes for multiple days may reintroduce your body to the same bacteria and viruses over and over, increasing the chances they will find their way inside your body. But using soap specifically designed to clean clothes will not only remove bad germs but also your body oils that harbor bacteria just like on your hands.
When in public, practice habits that will help keep other people healthy, too. If you must sneeze or cough, use disposable tissues or your elbow to prevent germs from spreading. You can also excuse yourself from heavily-peopled rooms. At home, clean hard surfaces regularly. White vinegar diluted with tap water is known to kill both bacteria and viruses while being safe for pets and children, but many common cleaners work well, too. Another way to keep your home healthy is to use an air cleaner with a HEPA that can reduce or eliminate infectious agents in the air.
Don’t forget to carry these cleaning habits over to other areas of your life, too. Over half of American workers eat lunch and snack at their desk, yet the typical desk has 100 times more germs than the average kitchen table. Often employees don’t even think about the cleanliness of their office environment, but as most adults spend the majority of their waking day at work, this is also often where they encounter the largest number of germs.
Take Wounds And Injuries Seriously From The Start
The body’s first line of defense against illness is actually its skin. Unbroken skin keeps out most of the germs we come in contact with throughout the day, which is why any breaks in the skin should be treated seriously. This means cleaning the wound with soap and water, treating it with antibacterial ointment, and covering it until healing begins. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends removing old bandages and checking for signs of infection every 24 hours. By following these steps, you can limit the number of germs that enter the body and tax your immune system.
You Can Improve Your Resistance To Colds And Flu
By taking simple steps to be healthy and maintain your immune system, you can decrease your chance of developing a cold or the flu. Following through on healthy habits and caring for your body in practical ways go far in making your body better at fighting off infections and recovering more quickly when you do fall ill. Much of it simply comes down to awareness and establishing good habits.