Each year, the typical adult can expect to contract two or three colds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Skip the annual flu vaccine and you set yourself up for a bout of that as well. But it doesn't have to be this way! Aside from good hand washing (with soap, for at least 20 seconds), "there's a lot you can do to drastically cut your risk of getting sick," says Holly Phillips, MD, a general internist in New York City. "And even if you do catch a bug, you may be able to cut short the duration of your illness." Arm yourself with these tips from the experts, and make this cold and flu season your healthiest yet.
The same live cultures that help ease digestive distress can help stave off a cold, says Dr. Phillips, who wrote The Exhaustion Breakthrough. A 2011 study backs this up: Scientists found that people who consumed probiotics via supplements or fermented foods (think yogurt, kefir, and kimchi) had 12% fewer upper respiratory infections.
Other research conducted in 2012 compared two groups of college students suffering from colds: The group that took a probiotic supplement with Lactobacillus rhamnosus recovered two days earlier and had symptoms that were 34% less severe.
Spending the day in a stuffy room with anyone who's under the weather raises your risk of catching a bug. Letting a little fresh air circulate keeps airborne viral particles on the move, making them harder to pick up, says Dr. Phillips.
Better yet, go for a brisk walk! Exercise can boost your immune function, which may keep you from getting sick. A 2009 study found that people who exercised 45 minutes or more at a time, about four times a week, took 25% to 50% less time off from work during cold and flu season compared with couch potatoes.
Research published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition offered evidence of their immune-boosting powers. People who ate a cooked shiitake mushroom daily for a month showed higher numbers of T cells and less inflammation.
And that goes for other healthy foods as well. Make sure you're getting enough antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies in your diet, which can help fight damaging particles known a free radicals. Research from the University of California, Berkeley suggests that broccoli, cabbage, and kale offer the biggest boost.
Sure, you hate to be rude, but moving out of firing range is crucial, says Dr. Phillips: "Germs carried in sneeze particles can travel 20 feet!" If a stranger next to you begins achooing or coughing, excuse yourself and scoot to another seat. All you need to say: "I'm sorry—I always catch colds really easily."
And make sure you’re not the culprit! When you have to cough or sneeze, aim into the crook of your elbow. As you use your hands all day long, you don't want to spread germs to the next doorknob or computer keyboard you touch.
You might as well lick a restroom door (ick). "Not touching your face greatly cuts your odds of getting sick," says Margarita Rohr, MD, an internist at NYU Langone Medical Center. Even if you wash your hands regularly, touching your nose and eyes isn't a smart idea. They are the most common areas through which germs enter the body.
But that's easier said than done: The average person puts a hand on her mouth or nose more than three times an hour. So do yourself a favor and try to keep your hands away from your face, unless you've just washed your hands. Or break the habit by sitting on your hands when they're idle.
Take advantage of longer nights and log enough shut-eye. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that subjects who slept for fewer than seven hours were nearly three times as susceptible to colds as people who slept for at least eight hours.
Throughout cold season, add this to your nighttime routine: Rinse your nose using a neti pot with boiled (and cooled) salted water, or an over-the-counter nasal irrigator or saline solution. "It will help clear out viral particles you've breathed in during the day before they take root in your system," says Richard Lebowitz, MD, an otolaryngologist at NYU Langone Medical Center.
Some studies suggest that routine use can deplete the protective mucus in the nose and actually increase the risk of sinus infections. However, others suggest they can reduce the risk of ear infections in kids. Your best bet may be to avoid routine use, and use the pot for a few days if you're experiencing symptoms.
Try taking them as soon as you start feeling under the weather, says Dr. Lebowitz. Zinc is a mineral essential to the cells of the immune system, and a 2013 Cochrane Library analysis of 18 trials found that ingesting it within 24 hours of the onset of cold symptoms reduces the duration of the illness. The study authors recommend a daily dose of 75 milligrams.
You could also ramp up your intake of these 13 zinc-rich foods. In addition to cutting the time of your colds, zinc may boost your libido, help heal wounds, and prevent out-of-control inflammation.
"Fluids help thin out the mucus that your body makes when you're sick," says Dr. Phillips. "And when that germ-filled mucus is thinner, it's easier to clear out of your system." Good choices are water, orange juice, or hot liquids that can ease a sore throat, such as tea or chicken soup.
Dry indoor air makes a sore throat and wicked cough even worse. A humidifier helps these symptoms become more bearable by filling the air you breathe with moisture, says Rob Danoff, DO, program director at Aria Health in Philadelphia. Plus, studies suggest that viruses have an easier time surviving in dry air, so humidifiers may help reduce a viruses ability to survive.
Dr. Chasse recommends this trick to her patients: Several times a day, add a few drops of thyme or eucalyptus oil to boiling water, then breathe in the aromatic steam. The menthol-like smell should make your airways feel as if they're opening up. Plus, adds Dr. Chasse, it's thought that antimicrobial particles in these essential oils coat the mucous membrane lining the nasal cavity.
You might feel less draggy if you do some light exercise—think a brisk walk or gentle yoga class (no inversions!)—to boost your circulation. But if you're battling a bad cold or the flu, it's no time for a killer workout. "Your body needs to save energy to fight off the virus," explains Dr. Rohr.
Your mom was right: This really does work. Salt helps kill pathogens. What's more, coating your throat with a salt solution (1/2 teaspoon of salt in a cup of warm water) will ease inflammation and loosen mucus, which helps flush out germs, says Dr. Phillips.
Even if you don't have a sore throat, consider gargling to prevent cold symptoms. A 2005 study suggests that healthy people who gargled three times a day for two months during the cold and flu season had fewer cold symptoms than those who didn't. So add one teaspoon of salt to a glass of warm water and go crazy.
Throat so sore that it hurts to swallow? Sucking on an icy treat should offer temporary relief by numbing the area, says Dr. Danoff. (Discover other ways to soothe a sore throat.)
Although it's tempting to be a trooper, the truth is no one wants to see you in the office while you're coughing, sneezing, and likely to infect everyone around you. Workers who don't call in sick when they should aren't doing their employers any favors in terms of productivity either.
Instead, take time to relax. Stress, no matter what the cause, can interfere with immune system function, leaving you more vulnerable to threats like the flu. If you find it hard to get calm, try heavy-duty relaxation methods, like transcendental meditation.
Colds and flu are caused by viruses, not bacteria. That means that antibioticswhich only kill bacteria are useless for cold symptoms. So try not to beg your doctor for a prescription! She may give you one under pressure, even if she thinks it really won't help. (Placebo effect, anyone?) What's more, antibiotics are not free of side effects. They can kill off good bacteria in your body, which help to digest your food and do other important stuff, such as prevent yeast infections in the vagina.
If you're not feeling well, there's a rule of thumb—the "neck rule"—for figuring out when it's safe to exercise or head to the gym. If your symptoms are above the neck—a stuffy nose, scratchy throat, and headache—you probably have a head cold and can safely hit the treadmill. If you have a fever, achy body, or lung congestion, however, it's probably the flu and a sign to rest up. (Still, experts warn that this rule isn't foolproof, and it's best to use your judgement when it comes to taking time off from exercise.)
There's no need to morph into a germaphobe. Still, wiping down frequently touched surfaces, such as doorknobs, makes sense if many household members are sick.
Plus, you've heard it before, but it’s really essential to wash your hands frequently. Regular soap and warm water will kill germs—just make sure to rub you hands vigorously for 15 to 20 seconds. And don't stop washing them even if you're already sick. "By washing your hands regularly, you decrease the spread of disease," says Dr. Thomas Weida, professor of family and community medicine at Penn State University's Hershey Medical Center.
Don't feel guilty about shying away from company during cold and flu season. In fact, a 2010 study suggests that social butterflies are more likely to get the flu than their less-gregarious peers.
That’s because the flu virus loves crowds. The more people you're around, the more likely you are to catch a virus from someone else. Sure, it's hard to avoid people if you have to commute (unless it's virtual), but other than that, it's not a bad idea to avoid the masses. In other words, shop online if you can, rather than at the crowded local mall.
Beware of the dip. It may be harboring more than savory salsa or ranch dressing. Double-dippers can introduce germs from their mouth back into the dish, exposing others to viruses. Let's just say it's the season to be a thoughtful snacker.
The same goes for taking a tiny sip of someone else's drink or share a bottled water: Now is not the best time. Sharing glasses, utensils, and toiletries (like toothbrushes!) are all bad ideas during cold and flu season.
Being sick can kill your appetite, but research suggests that it’s a bad idea to walk around feeling hungry even before you get sick. A 2008 report in the Journal of Nutrition found that mice on a low-cal diet that were exposed to the flu virus took longer to recover and were more likely to suffer ill effects than their well-fed furry pals. People aren’t mice, of course, but it’s not a bad idea to skip the diet until after flu season.