As temperatures plummet and the days grow shorter, the winter season can become a hotbed of cold and flu viruses. The good news? There are some simple preventative measures you can take to boost your immune system, fend off sickness, and stay healthy—even through the coldest months of the year.
Make a habit of washing your hands every time you come home or use the bathroom, and before and after every meal. Use warm water and soap and scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Try not to touch your face when you're outside.
Without a vaccine available to the general public, right now, wearing a mask and adhering to social distancing guidelines is our best protection against COVID-19. These precautions in addition to being vigilant about washing our hands, can also help protect against the common cold and seasonal flu.
“With more than 40,000 deaths from influenza every year, getting the flu shot is an excellent protective measure,” says CityMD Medical Director for Manhattan Dr. Janette Nesheiwat. "This time of year, it's not just COVID-19 going around, but also many other viruses such as influenza and rhinovirus," she says. "The last thing you want is to have two concurrently, which doubles your risk of complications."
Severe complications from influenza can also occur for those with heart or lung disease, diabetes, or pregnancy, as well as people over 65. It's important to get a new flu shot every year so that your immune system is adapted to the latest strains.
Getting enough rest is critical for keeping your immune system strong and healthy since your body regenerates when you sleep, says Dr. Nesheiwat. Aim for at least seven to eight hours of shuteye a night and follow good sleep hygiene, including keeping blue light-emitting devices out of the bedroom.
Water performs two important functions in your body: it carries oxygen to your cells and flushes bacteria and infection-causing toxins away from them. Keep your body well-hydrated by consuming at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily. While you're at it, try to limit your alcohol consumption and avoid smoking, as both activities can dehydrate your body.
Aim for at least 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise, like walking, hiking, or yoga. By boosting your blood flow, exercise can help encourage the production of white blood cells, which protect your body from disease.
Foods that are high in vitamin C and antioxidants have immune-boosting properties as well as the ability to fight disease-causing free radicals and inflammation inside your body. Avoid deep-fried or processed foods high in sugar and fat. Instead, choose colorful fruits and vegetables as well as potent superfoods like blueberries and pomegranates.
"Studies show echinacea, garlic, and green tea can help prevent a simple cold, but they won't do anything for you once you already have it," says Summit CityMD allergist/immunologist Dr. Neil Minikes. "When I get sick, I reach for a bowl of nourishing, mineral-rich chicken soup to make me feel better."
A multi-vitamin can be very helpful for boosting the immune system year-round, says Dr. Minikes, though he adds that those who are already following a well-balanced diet may not need it. Increased consumption of zinc has been shown to help in fighting off respiratory viruses, while added vitamins C, D, and B12 may be beneficial "if you're feeling under the weather," he says. "A lot of marketing has been used to push supplements without a lot of science to back up their claims. But vitamin D, which we need more of in the winter as we get decreased exposure to sunlight, has been shown to affect the immune system in a positive way."