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Stay Flu-Free This Fall

How you can significantly improve your odds of avoiding the flu and remaining healthy.

Flu is still one of the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States. Forty thousand people will die during a typical flu season, which begins in October; more than 200,000 will be hospitalized because of complications. “Flu can be—and is—extremely debilitating,” says John W. O’Grady, MD, a professor of clinical medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center. “People say they feel like they’ve been hit by a truck.”

If you’re used to being waylaid by the flu (or the plain old cold) every year, here’s good news—you don’t have to. Getting vaccinated for the flu is important, of course. But flu-shot aside, you can significantly improve your odds of getting through the season and staying healthy all year long. How? By following these keep-well steps:

1. Wash Often  Since the flu virus spreads easily from your hands if you rub your eyes, touch your nose or mouth, or bite your nails, wash your hands often. Simply touching a doorknob can contaminate your hand. “Wash several times a day—not in a paranoid way, but after you’ve used the restroom, prior to cooking and eating, picking up the phone, after coughing or sneezing,” Dr. O’Grady says. And try to keep your hands away from your face.

It’s also important to wash the right way: Use warm, soapy water and scrub your hands (including under your nails) for at least 15 seconds. If you don’t have access to soap and water, hand sanitizers with an alcohol content of at least 60 percent are a convenient alternative after using a grocery cart, for example, or riding on a bus or subway.

2. Watch What You Touch  Even if you think your home or office is clean, germs can be spread in respiratory droplets when people cough or sneeze. Most flu viruses can live one to two days on nonporous surfaces like plastic, metal, or wood, and 8 to 12 hours on porous surfaces like paper, clothing, and tissue. In the office, wipe down your phone, keyboard, desktop, or any gadgets at the end of every day. It’s also a good idea to use paper towels to turn off the bathroom faucet, exit the restroom, or open the office microwave. And press the elevator button using your keys, knuckle, or an elbow.

3. Add Supplements  If you tend to get sick every winter, consider asking your physician to check the level of vitamin D in your blood. According to a study in Archives of Internal Medicine, people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 36 percent more likely to catch colds and flu than those with the most D (30 nanograms per millimeter of blood). For this study, researchers analyzed information on vitamin D levels and respiratory infections from nearly 19,000 people who had participated in the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. How much Vitamin D to take? A late-September article in Medscape Today says that 800 to 1000 IU daily is the dose that may give someone a normal vitamin D level.

4. Get Enough Zzzzs One of the healthiest things you can do during flu season is get enough rest. Research has shown that people who are sleep- deprived produce fewer natural killer cells (the body’s first line of defense against infection). “We need at least eight hours of sleep to keep our immune system as strong as possible, and young people up to age 20 need nine or ten hours,” says Mitchell Gaynor, M.D., clinical assistant professor of medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College. Treat yourself to an earlier bedtime as often as possible this season.

5. Get Exercise  Ever catch a cold after a siege of emotional stress? Unfortunately, stress releases the hormone cortisol, which can impair your immune system’s ability to fight a flu virus. “Stress is epidemic in this country and we need to learn constructive ways to deal with it,” says Dr. Gaynor. To reduce your stress level, try meditation, journaling, or massage. Regular exercise will also help to lower your stress and sharpen your immune function. If you’re reluctant to go to a gym for fear you’ll be exposed to people with colds, wipe the handles of equipment with a disinfectant spray.

6. Stay Hydrated When your body is well hydrated, the layer of mucus in your throat acts like flypaper, trapping viruses, which are eventually eliminated in your system. Keep a bottle of water on your desk, or drink tea or juice and sip frequently. Office workers are particularly vulnerable because the air in climate-controlled buildings is usually dry. Oregon State University researchers reported in 2009 that the influenza virus is more likely to survive in dry, low-humidity air.

7. Spice Up Your Food It’s natural for us to crave soups, stews, and heavier foods during cooler months, says David Winston, co-author of Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief and director of his eponymous Center for Herbal Studies in Washington, New Jersey. To keep your resistance up, try warming spices such as turmeric, ginger, and garlic to season your cooking. Researchers are confirming what traditional medicine practitioners have understood for centuries: many spices not only add flavor, but provide health benefits as well.

If you’ve followed this prevention advice and still feel you may be coming down with a bug, there are loads of supplements on the market. Unfortunately, many products promise a lot, but fail to deliver. A few years ago, for instance, echinacea was the most popular herbal cold remedy on the market. But a 2005 study of 437 volunteers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that it was no more effective than a placebo.

Nevertheless, numerous health experts believe there are some herbal supplements you might want to keep in your medicine cabinet to shorten the severity or duration of colds or the flu. However since herbs may produce side effects or interact badly with certain medications, it’s best to talk to your doctor before using an unfamiliar supplement. Among those worth trying:

Andrographis: Used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine, this bitter-tasting herb is particularly effective at relieving respiratory symptoms. Widely used in other parts of the world, it is beginning to show up on supplement shelves in the United States.

Astragalus: One of the most widely prescribed herbs in Chinese medicine, it is used to bolster the wei qi, or the defensive immune system. Researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas demonstrated that astragalus boosts immune responses in lab animals as well as in preliminary human clinical studies. Astragalus is available as a dry herb, a tincture, or in capsule form.

Elderberry: Long used for its antiviral properties, this European, Asian, and North American plant is loaded with quercetin (an antioxidant with antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties). Israeli scientists showed that a commercially available elderberry extract, called Sambucol, could suppress the growth of influenza viruses in lab dishes. The researchers also found that patients given the elderberry syrup recovered on average four days faster. 

Rona Cherry has written about health and wellness for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Ladies’ Home Journal, Vegetarian Times, and many other publications. She was the editor-in-chief of several national magazines, including Fitness and Longevity. She is currently an editorial and PR consultant with regional publications and nonprofits.