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One Writer's Experience
Germs find me irresistible. Every holiday season I struggle through weeks of stuffy-headed misery. Last year simultaneous bouts of bronchitis, sinusitis and pinkeye flattened me from Thanksgiving until New Year’s, putting a serious damper on celebrations. I’d love to be a part of the 15% of U.S. adults who report not getting even one cold per year. There’s no magic formula for that, but since hitting the sickness trifecta, I’ve interviewed experts to figure out how all of us can avoid getting sick and recover faster.
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Plan A: You Want to Stay Healthy
Find time for fitness
“Research has shown that exercise can knock down sick days by 40% to 50%,” says David C. Nieman, DrPH, director of Appalachian State University Human Performance Lab in Kannapolis, NC. “Activities such as a brisk walk stimulate ‘special ops’ immune cells, which circulate throughout the body to fight off disease-causing organisms.” Aim for 20 to 45 minutes of aerobic exercise that gets your heart pumping most days of the week.
Guard your zzz’s
Sleeping less than seven hours nightly makes you three times more likely to catch a cold. Watch out if you’re burning that midnight oil: People who don’t get even five hours of rest a day are 4.5 times more likely to get sick. “Sleep enhances the immune defenses by positively affecting the white blood cell counts and antibodies that fight off infections,” says Timothy Morgenthaler, MD, codirector of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Mayo Clinic. “Learn to prioritize sleep just like you would any other healthy behavior.”
Related: 8 Ways to Sleep Better
Wash your hands—a lot
In one study, only 5% of people washed their hands for 15 seconds or more—that’s how long you should be scrubbing to kill bacteria. “Cold viruses can survive on surfaces for up to two days, and bacteria can live a week or so,” says Philip M. Tierno, Jr., PhD, professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU School of Medicine. Touch something contaminated, then your face, and bam! you’re sick. Protect yourself by frequently and thoroughly lathering up. Grab a paper towel to avoid touching the faucet and door in public bathrooms. When you don’t have access to soap and water (say, after pushing that elevator button), a quarter-sized dollop of hand sanitizer works too.
Hang with your friends
Chronic stress leaves you vulnerable to illness—but social connections provide buffers that help you manage it better. “Not everyone under stress who’s exposed to a virus gets sick,” says Sheldon Cohen, PhD, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “But we do know that it makes you less able to fight off viruses effectively.” So spend more time with people who make you happy.
Get a flu shot
You didn’t run out and get your shot in October? Don’t worry. Even December is not too late. “Flu often doesn’t peak until February,” says William Schaffner, MD, professor of medicine, division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. “However, the shot needs to be in your system for about two weeks to build your immunity.”
De-Germ Your Space
When everyone around you is sick, start cleaning. Many infections are picked up from surfaces such as doorknobs and shopping carts, says Philip M. Tierno Jr., PhD. These 3 actions will reduce your chances of getting sick, especially at home and work.
1. Wipe down anything used by multiple people on a daily basis: bathroom surfaces, appliance handles, the living room computer keyboard, light switches.
2. Use a cleaning spray or wipe that’s labeled as “disinfectant.” No matter what you’ve read, homemade products don’t kill disease-causing organisms, says Tierno.
3. Avoid sharing items like towels and cups, and opt for disposables whenever possible until everyone feels better.
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Plan B: You Feel Something Coming On
Just go to bed already
I’m notorious for trying to power through an illness, but apparently, I’m not doing myself any favors. And neither are you. If you feel a scratchy throat or body aches kicking in, give yourself permission to slow down, take it easy and get more rest. It’s hard but it’s important, since research shows not getting enough sleep weakens your immune system. “Step back and say, ‘I’m getting sick. I may feel better faster if I alter my schedule,’ ” says Schaffner. “Listen to your body and get some rest.”
Lay off the booze
Even though a few cocktails might make that holiday party a lot more fun, drinking alcohol can suppress your immune system—not to mention ruin a good night’s sleep. (See above.) What does a body good? Water, tea and non-caffeinated beverages (caffeine is a diuretic) keep mucous membranes less dry and irritated.
My grandmother was onto something when she made me gargle with salt water for a scratchy throat. “It helps reduce the swelling of tissues,” says Mohamed A. Jalloh, PharmD, spokesperson for the American Pharmacists Association. “You can do it throughout the day to lessen discomfort.” The recipe: Add 1 teaspoon of salt to a cup of water and bring to a boil. Let cool to lukewarm, then gargle.
Watch for flu symptoms
If a family member has the flu or you suddenly feel achy, feverish and just plain awful, call your doctor immediately. They may prescribe Tamiflu, an antiviral med that can slightly shorten your illness if started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, says Jack Ende, MD, president of the American College of Physicians. But don’t go to your doctor’s office or the ER, because you risk spreading your germs. Your doc may be able to call in the prescription.
Keep it Indoors
In case you do come down with something, stay home. Your coworkers will thank you. “Although you’re most infectious for 24 to 48 hours before symptoms begin, you’re also spreading viruses for a day or two right after you get sick,” says Schaffner.
Protect your gut
If your doctor prescribes antibiotics for a bacterial infection, save your stomach some stress. Antibiotics can throw off the balance of trillions of bacteria in your gut and cause GI problems. Ask for the shortest effective course possible and try to supplement your diet with probiotics found in foods such as kefir or yogurt that contain active and live cultures.
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Plan C: You Want to Feel Better Fast
Target your treatments
“You don’t need a more expensive combination product for symptoms you don’t have,” says Jalloh. Save yourself some cash by asking your pharmacist which product will ease only your most bothersome complaint. Generally, that’s an antihistamine for a runny nose; a decongestant or nasal spray for a few days to relieve stuffiness; and some acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen to alleviate body aches or a sore throat.
If you’ve been vomiting or have diarrhea and feel weak, dizzy or confused, dehydration may be the culprit. “Recharge with Pedialyte, which provides sodium and other electrolytes your body needs without too much sugar,” says Jalloh. If you’d prefer to shop in the grown-up aisle, sports drinks are okay too.
Sorry, but antibiotics don’t cure colds or flu. You’ll have to tough it out for at least a week to 10 days when it comes to viruses. Check in with your doctor if your illness lingers more than two weeks, says Ende, or if you have facial tenderness or dental pain, which may be signs of a secondary infection such as bacterial sinusitis, or chest pain and shortness of breath, which may signal pneumonia.
One more thing you can do to sick-proof yourself: Clean your cell phone. Go to familycircle.com/clean-cellphone to find out the best way to do it.
“Your body needs fuel to recuperate,” says Nancy Z. Farrell, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It’s best to eat or drink small portions every two to three hours. But take it easy on dairy and caffeine, which can trigger diarrhea.” When you’re under the weather, the following foods and beverages may help, depending on what ails you.
Saltines, dry rice cereal, ginger lozenges, ginger tea, flat ginger ale
Bananas, rice, toast, applesauce, tea
Soft foods such as scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, creamed soups, yogurt
Originally appeared in our December 2017 issue.