Immunity is the season’s magic word. When temperatures drop and windows and doors stay shut, viruses can thrive indoors; if your immune system isn’t up to the task, you’re likely to catch the latest bug to hit town. This means less energy, the possibility of health complications, and just plain old feeling awful. That’s why it’s essential to ward off the very real threat of colds, flu, and other scary winter germs lurking on every doorknob, in every public bathroom, and on every grab-rail of your morning train to work.
Each winter, these infections put millions of people out of commission, cost employers more than $20 billion in paid sick days, and send more than 200,000 sufferers to the hospital. So how do you protect yourself? We’ve compiled a list of exactly what you need—and what you should avoid—to stay healthy during cold and flu season. These ideas made the cut not because they have fancy names or pack 400% of your daily vitamin allowances, but because they’re safe, they’ve proven their worth in clinical studies, and our trusted experts recommend them.
An infuenza vaccination can reduce the risk of flu illness by 50 to 60% in the general population and can decrease the severity and side effects if you get sick. So roll up your sleeve—the government says that this year there will be plenty to go around; the feds recommend flu shots for everyone ages 6 months and older.
Cold and flu germs are easily passed through hand-to-hand contact, says Schachter, so any way you can avoid touching public objects—such as the communal pen at the bank—will cut your risk. Having your own supply of dime-a-dozen plastic ballpoints might just keep you from picking up a virus.
When researchers from Children’s Hospital in Boston studied 292 families for 5 months, they found that those who carried hand sanitizer with them had 59% fewer cases of stomach bugs than nonusers. That’s because, when used correctly—squirt out enough gel so your hands still feel damp after rubbing together for 10 to 15 seconds—these products nearly eliminate germs.
4. Set goals
Challenging situations can work to your advantage: “When we’re facing adversity, we become hyperalert and our bodies guard themselves against enemies—whether that’s a predator or a virus,” says Monika Fleshner, PhD, an associate professor of neuroimmunophysiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
5,Sign up for a rubdown
Massage Threphy has been shown to improve immune function and energy levels in cancer patients. In a 500-person review study, massage lowered cortisol levels by up to 53%. Experts believe this boost can extend even to those who are simply dealing with the daily pressures of life. A weekly kneading, whether it’s a professional massage or simply a back rub from your significant other, can also increase serotonin and dopamine, mood boosters that may help protect your immunity, as well.