Are you being bombarded with reminders to get a flu shot? Welcome to fall and winter. Whether you decide to get a flu shot or not is a personal decision that depends on your risk of complications from influenza, but regardless of that decision, there are other strategies to employ that will offer protection against illness.
Whether it is at your doctor’s office, visiting your grandkids, or at the movies, chances are you are going to be in a situation where you come into contact with someone who is sick. Try to avoid close contact of course. When you are in a public place and someone sneezes or coughs around you, try breathing out slowly as you try to move away from them. This will keep you from inhaling virus-infected droplets as they are expelled. If you do get a respiratory virus, step away from other people when you sneeze or cough and completely cover your nose and mouth. Better yet, stay home if possible when you are ill to limit the spread of the virus.
Respiratory viruses can be transmitted through the air or by contact with a contaminated surface. The easiest way to pick up germs is through our hands, which then touch our mouth, nose, or eyes. Every surface harbors germs – computer keyboards, doorknobs, phones, banisters, and even the pen you use to sign for purchases. Cold and flu viruses can survive for varying times on hard surfaces, and some are still alive and able to cause infection after 24 hours.1 Use your head when using your hands. Keep hands and fingers away from your face and mouth, and wash your hands frequently. When you’re out and unable to wash your hands, only eat using a spoon or fork. Carry your own pen to use when signing for purchases (and don’t share it with anyone), use alcohol-based wipes to disinfect public surfaces you come into contact with (like shopping cart handles), and make use of hand sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available. When washing your hands, do what doctors and hospital workers do: make sure to scrub your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, then dry thoroughly with a paper towel. Want to make sure you are washing for 20 seconds? Sing Happy Birthday to yourself twice.
Keep It Moving
As the weather turns cold and blustery for much of the U.S., our natural inclination is to stay inside where it’s warm and dry. But fight the urge to turn into a couch potato. If you spend your weekdays sitting for work, it is doubly important that you carve out time to be on your feet and active. Research indicates that regular exercise has some benefits in boosting immunity, resulting in fewer and less severe respiratory illnesses.2
Even if you are under the weather, as long as you don’t have a fever, you can still work out. The general rule is that if your symptoms are simply coughing or sneezing it’s OK to work out. Fever or chills? Rest until you feel better.
Eat Better to Boost Immunity
Better nutritional choices can reduce your vulnerability to infection and reduce the length and severity of an illness if you do get sick. Several vitamins and minerals help the immune system work properly, such as zinc, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin D. Vitamin A precursor carotenoids are present in colorful vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, and leafy greens. Vitamin C is abundant in many fruits and vegetables. For many people zinc and vitamin D are worth supplementing to ensure adequacy.
Eating cooked mushrooms may boost your immune defenses. According to a study on healthy volunteers who ate white button mushrooms daily, these mushrooms may help to prevent respiratory infections by improving the production of protective immune substances in the mouth and other mucosal surfaces.3 Phytochemicals from a variety of mushrooms have been shown to enhance the activity of several different types of immune cells, including natural killer cells, which attack and destroy virus-infected cells, and dendritic cells, which help to build immunity to foreign antigens.4-8 The immune-enhancing actions of mushrooms are thought to help the body more effectively attack microbial invaders. Make sure to cook your mushrooms before eating them, as raw mushrooms contain a potentially carcinogenic substance called agaritine, that cooking significantly reduces.
Other foods that help to boost immunity: berries, which offer antiviral protection and can block the replication of the flu and other respiratory viruses; 9, 10 elderberry juice, which studies suggest can shorten the duration of a flu episode;11, 12 onions and garlic, which contain powerful virus-killing phytochemicals (which are activated when you chop or chew them); 13-15 kale and other cruciferous vegetables which contain substances called glucosinolates which are converted into immune-helping compounds, especially when you eat them raw (these compounds also require chopping or chewing to activate).16, 17
Getting enough sleep is as important for your body as eating right, exercising, and practicing good hygiene. That’s because lack of sleep not only makes it harder for you to get through the day, it is also linked to all kinds of health problems — from diabetes to increasing blood pressure to weight gain and increased risk for a heart attack. Inadequate sleep also makes it more likely that you'll catch a cold.18, 19 If you are tired and rundown, you are more likely to be susceptible to infection. To get a better night’s rest, minimize use of computer, phone and television screens before bed, maintain a regular schedule of bedtime, and try to wake up around the same time each day. You will feel more rested and your body will be better able to perform optimally.
- NHS: How long do bacteria and viruses live outside the body? [http://www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/how-long-do-bacteria-and-viruses-live-outside-the-body.aspx]
- Nieman DC, Henson DA, Austin MD, Sha W. Upper respiratory tract infection is reduced in physically fit and active adults. Br J Sports Med 2011, 45:987-992.
- Jeong SC, Koyyalamudi SR, Pang G. Dietary intake of Agaricus bisporus white button mushroom accelerates salivary immunoglobulin A secretion in healthy volunteers. Nutrition 2012, 28:527-531.
- Wachtel-Galor S, Yuen J, Buswell JA, Benzie IFF: Ganoderma lucidum (Lingzhi or Reishi): A Medicinal Mushroom. In Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition. Edited by Benzie IFF, Wachtel-Galor S. Boca Raton (FL)2011
- Rincao VP, Yamamoto KA, Ricardo NM, et al. Polysaccharide and extracts from Lentinula edodes: structural features and antiviral activity. Virol J 2012, 9:37.
- Suzuki F, Suzuki C, Shimomura E, et al. Antiviral and interferon-inducing activities of a new peptidomannan, KS-2, extracted from culture mycelia of Lentinus edodes. J Antibiot (Tokyo) 1979, 32:1336-1345.
- Ren Z, Guo Z, Meydani SN, Wu D. White button mushroom enhances maturation of bone marrow-derived dendritic cells and their antigen presenting function in mice. J Nutr 2008, 138:544-550.
- Yamaguchi Y, Miyahara E, Hihara J. Efficacy and safety of orally administered Lentinula edodes mycelia extract for patients undergoing cancer chemotherapy: a pilot study. Am J Chin Med 2011, 39:451-459.
- Naithani R, Huma LC, Holland LE, et al. Antiviral activity of phytochemicals: a comprehensive review. Mini Rev Med Chem 2008, 8:1106-1133.
- Xie XH, Zang N, Li SM, et al. Resveratrol Inhibits Respiratory Syncytial Virus-Induced IL-6 Production, Decreases Viral Replication, and Downregulates TRIF Expression in Airway Epithelial Cells. Inflammation 2012, 35:1392-1401.
- Roxas M, Jurenka J. Colds and influenza: a review of diagnosis and conventional, botanical, and nutritional considerations. Altern Med Rev 2007, 12:25-48.
- Zakay-Rones Z, Thom E, Wollan T, Wadstein J. Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. J Int Med Res 2004, 32:132-140.
- Lau BH, Yamasaki T, Gridley DS. Garlic compounds modulate macrophage and T-lymphocyte functions. Mol Biother 1991, 3:103-107.
- Hassan ZM, Yaraee R, Zare N, et al. Immunomodulatory affect of R10 fraction of garlic extract on natural killer activity. Int Immunopharmacol 2003, 3:1483-1489.
- Weber ND, Andersen DO, North JA, et al. In vitro virucidal effects of Allium sativum (garlic) extract and compounds. Planta Med 1992, 58:417-423.
- Higdon J, Delage B, Williams D, Dashwood R. Cruciferous vegetables and human cancer risk: epidemiologic evidence and mechanistic basis. Pharmacol Res 2007, 55:224-236.
- Xue L, Pestka JJ, Li M, et al. 3,3'-Diindolylmethane stimulates murine immune function in vitro and in vivo. The Journal of nutritional biochemistry 2008, 19:336-344.
- Opp MR. Sleeping to fuel the immune system: mammalian sleep and resistance to parasites. BMC Evol Biol 2009, 9:8.
- Almeida CM, Malheiro A. Sleep, immunity and shift workers: A review. Sleep Sci 2016, 9:164-168.