From proper hand washing to loading up on the right foods, here’s how to feel healthy all winter.
When a cold takes over your body, it can seem like you’re at the mercy of the virus when it comes to how long it will last.
“The common cold is a viral infection of your throat and nose, also known as your upper respiratory tract. Many types of viruses can cause the common cold, but the most common culprit is rhinovirus,” says Adiba Khan, MD, family physician at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital.
A runny nose, sore throat, cough, congestion, mild body aches and headaches, sneezing, and low-grade fevers can leave you feeling exhausted before your symptoms start to clear up. While they’re typically harmless, it can take up to two weeks to start feeling better, explains Deborah S. Clements, MD, family physician at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital.
The best thing you can do to feel healthy during the colder months? Stop a cold from taking over your body in the first place. In fact, there are ways you can prevent colds and shorten their length. Here’s exactly what you can do fight them off all season long, so you can save those sick days for something more fun.
1. Crank up the humidifier
Low humidity dries out your nasal passages, making it harder to trap and eliminate the micro-bugs that settle in your sinuses, eventually leading to a cold. The fix? Invest in a humidifier and keep it running when the air starts to feel dry.
“A humidifier may help to keep the mucous membranes moist. Dry mucous membranes in the nose inhibit your body’s ability to trap germs as they enter your system,” says Amber Tully, MD, a family medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic.
But make sure you keep your humidifier clean, as the warm moist environment can become a breeding ground for mould (which can also cause cold-like symptoms if you’re allergic to it).
2. Get enough vitamin D
Research shows that people who don’t get enough vitamin D are much more likely to suffer from an upper respiratory infection—causing a cough, scratchy throat, or stuffy nose—than those who load up on the sunshine vitamin, potentially because your cells depend on D to activate their infection-fighting responses. “Some studies have shown that supplementing with 400 International Units of vitamin D per day may prevent respiratory infections,” says Dr. Khan.
Currently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggest that most adults aim for at least 600 IUs per day, but some organisations recommend much more than that. Getting enough vitamin D through your diet alone is tough (you can find it in foods like salmon, beef, egg yolks, fortified milk and orange juice, cheese, and mushrooms), so if you suspect you’re low, talk to your doctor about finding a supplement that works for you and your needs.
3. Keep your hands clean—and away from your face
Even if you don’t notice it, you likely touch your face a lot. In fact, one small 2008 studyfound that the participants touched their face an average 16 times per hour.
But that’s a major no-no during cold and flu season: When you come in contact with a virus (through another person or an infected surface) it can enter your system if your hands aren’t properly cleaned, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Viruses also spread by skin to skin contact, such as a handshake,” says Dr. Clements.
So, maintain a hands-off policy. “This prevents germs on your hands being transferred into your mucous membrane (nose and mouth) and getting you sick,” says Dr. Tully.
While you’re at it, make sure you’re washing up the right way. Use soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds (get between your fingers and underneath your nails!), says the CDC. Opt for hand sanitizer if you’re in a pinch.
4. Disinfect your phone
Think of all the places you put your phone down during the day: the kitchen counter, a bathroom stall, your restaurant table — talk about a germ-fest.
In fact, a 2012 University of Arizona study found that mobile phones may carry 10 times the amount of bacteria than toilet seats.
To disinfect your devices, Apple suggests using a Lysol or Clorox disinfecting wipe. Just be sure to shut down your phone, squeeze out any excess liquid (you don’t want a pool of the stuff sitting on your screen), and dry it off with a soft lint-free cloth. Keep in mind that while bleach is great for banishing viruses, products containing the substance might damage your phone.
5. Find some time to relax
“Being run-down or stressed can weaken your immune system’s ability to fight infection,” says Dr. Tully. When you feel super stressed or fatigued, your body pumps out the hormone cortisol, which may interfere with your body’s ability to stave off a cold.
So make winding down a priority: take up yoga, try meditation, take a daily stroll through some green space, or prioritise some time after work to make dinner with your family—anything that helps you shake off a long day will help.
6. Get plenty of sleep
A good snooze is key when it comes to preventing colds. In one JAMA Internal Medicinestudy, researchers gave 153 healthy men and women nasal drops containing rhinovirus and tracked their sleep habits.
They found that people who regularly got less than seven hours of sleep were three times more likely to come down with a cold than those who slept eight hours or more each night.
7. Load up on zinc
Research suggests that zinc can actually decrease the growth of viruses, says Dr. Clements. Plus, taking zinc (typically in the form of zinc lozenges or zinc gluconate nasal sprays) seems to reduce the duration and severity of symptoms right after they come on, according to the NIH.
“Although the proper dosing is unclear at this time, studies have shown a benefit only at daily doses greater than 75 milligrams.” says Dr. Clements. The NIH suggests most adults needs much less than that to meet their daily needs, so just go for foods rich in zinc, rather than a supplement (unless you talk to your doc about it first). Meat, tofu, oysters, and lentils are all great sources of the mineral.
8. Label your drinking glass
“When a family member has a cold, try to use disposable glasses or label glasses. This can help to prevent accidental spread of the virus,” says Dr. Khan.
And be extra careful when it comes to sharing objects that can get contaminated by a family member who is sick, such as telephones, towels, or utensils.
9. Power up with probiotics
Not all bacteria are bad—the good kind of bugs in your gut, found in probiotic foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kombucha, might give your immune system a boost. After all, a large portion of your immune system can be found right in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
One 2014 study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport actually found that rugby players who took a probiotic supplement experienced far fewer colds and GI infections than those who popped a placebo.
More research needs to be done to confirm that probiotics can truly keep viruses away, but studies suggest that the good bugs seem to be beneficial when symptoms hit, too. For instance, in a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that even though college students taking probiotics or a placebo caught colds at a similar rate, those taking probiotics experienced less intense symptoms (like a stuffy nose or sore throat) for a shorter amount of time.
The bottom line: Prevention really is the best medicine when it comes to the common cold.
But don’t freak out if you do get sick—most adults get at least one or two colds every year. Just keep an eye on how long it lasts: “If you’re having high fevers or persistent symptoms, be sure to see your doctor to make sure that nothing else is going on,” says Dr. Clements