The leaves are turning and the days are getting shorter, which means it’s time to start preparing for cold and flu season. The flu — shorthand for influenza — is a respiratory illness caused by viruses that affect your nose, throat, and lungs. In the U.S. and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, flu cases typically ramp up toward the end of October and peak between December and February.
One reason the flu spreads more easily during the winter months is that cold air protects the virus as it travels through the air in the form of tiny droplets. The other main reason is that people socialize indoors more frequently, where it’s easier for the flu to spread when someone affected by the virus coughs or sneezes.
The good news is that there are simple steps you can take to strengthen your immunity. From vigilant hand-washing to getting enough vitamin C and D, here are a few ways to give yourself an immunity boost in advance of cold and flu season.
The importance of flu vaccines
The number one thing you can do to protect your health and that of your loved ones is to get an annual flu shot, which will prompt your immune system to create antibodies that will defend you against the flu. Medical experts recommend getting the vaccine each and every year. every year.
Keep in mind it can take up to two weeks for the antibodies to provide sufficient protection. Given that flu season often peaks around December, the best time to get vaccinated is during September and October, and ideally no later than the end of October.
The flu can cause more serious health problems for people over the age of 65 and individuals living with chronic conditions such as COPD or diabetes, so it’s even more important to be proactive about flu vaccination if you fall into one of these groups.
Practice good hygiene
Good personal hygiene can lower your risk of getting the cold or flu and spreading it to others. Practice simple preventative measures like frequently washing your hands, disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, and keeping a healthy distance from anyone who isn’t feeling well.
And yes, there is a “right way” to wash your hands when it comes to cold and flu prevention. The CDC recommends following the simple steps below to stay healthy and avoid spreading germs.
1. Wet your hands with warm or cold running water and apply soap.
2. Lather your hands, including the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and beneath your nails.
3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. (Singing “Happy Birthday” twice is one option for timing yourself.)
4. Rinse and dry your hands.
Get a good night’s sleep and regular exercise
Your body is better prepared to defend against infectious diseases when it’s well-rested. Research has found that sleep can strengthen your T cells’ ability to help you fight infection. (T cells are a specific type of white blood cell and an important part of your immune system.)
To strengthen your immunity, aim for 7 to 9 hours every night. If you’re having difficulty falling asleep or sleeping through the night, there are some steps you can take to improve the quality of your sleep. Try to follow a consistent schedule: go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning, even on the weekends. And avoid consuming heavy meals or caffeine or using electronic devices close to your bedtime.
Staying physically active can also help you sleep better. In fact, exercise may boost your immunity in other ways, too, such as increasing your circulation, which helps white blood cells and antibodies travel to parts of your body where they’re needed.
Studies have found that U.S. adults tend to exercise less during winter and fall than they do during spring and summer, so be sure that your calendar can still accommodate your fitness routine during the colder months. Whether you explore virtual workout classes or bundle up to brave the cold, aim for about 150 minutes of exercise a week or 30 minutes per day.
Maintain an immunity-boosting diet
Your dietary choices can strengthen your immune system, not only during cold and flu season but all year round.
Probiotics are tiny organisms that can help you maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in your digestive system, which will also support your immune system. Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir all contain live probiotics, as does greek yogurt. In addition, legumes like chickpeas and lentils contain prebiotics, a type of fiber consumed by probiotics which also contributes to a healthy digestive system.
Oranges, tomatoes, and spinach each offer up plenty of Vitamin C, a powerful nutrient with many health benefits, including the ability to boost immunity and fight inflammation.
You’re automatically exposed to Vitamin D — another crucial immunity-related nutrient — on hot, sunny days, but during winter, it’s extra important to add it to your diet. Sources of Vitamin D include egg yolks, mushrooms, canned tuna, and salmon, which also contains other immunity-boosting nutrients like zinc and omega-3 fatty acids. There is evidence that taking Vitamin D daily can significantly lower your risk of getting sick with the cold or flu, and you may also consider taking Vitamin D supplements.
Lastly, if you’re feeling under the weather, be sure to drink 6-8 cups of water a day, as you can become dehydrated more easily when sick.
When you’re chronically stressed, your body releases a hormone called cortisol very frequently. Cortisol helps the body fight inflammation and infection, but its continual release can lessen its effectiveness as part of your immune system.
Some degree of stress is inevitable, but there are healthy ways to keep it under control, like practicing meditation, exercising, and staying connected to family and friends. If stressors at work or at home feel difficult to manage, your primary care provider can help you find mental health resources.
In addition, check out free mental health apps like What’s Up?, which helps you manage stress and negative thoughts through a therapy approach called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and Insight Timer, which has a diverse library of free guided meditations.
We’re here to help you navigate this year’s cold and flu season
We hope that the immunity-boosting tips above will help you enjoy a healthy fall and winter. If you do develop flu symptoms, remember to keep others safe by staying home and reporting your symptoms to a doctor as soon as possible (ideally within 48 hours to reduce the severity and duration of your illness). And with a strong immune system, you’re likely to be on the mend in no time at all.
Many mild cases of the cold or flu can often be treated with rest and extra self-care, but if your doctor prescribes an antiviral medication, we’ll hand-deliver it to your door for free.
Reach out any time through in-app secure messaging or by phone at 1-800-874-5881.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.