Although most cold and flu infections occur during the fall and winter seasons, the viruses responsible for these illnesses are present year-round.
Fighting off a viral infection takes its toll on most people, causing them to miss days at work and valuable time with their friends and families.
In this article, we describe eight evidence-based ways to avoid getting sick, so people can maintain their health and make the most of their time.
1. Getting vaccinated
Getting vaccinated offers the strongest protection against seasonal flu infections.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), getting vaccinated is the best way to protect against seasonal flu infections.
The flu occurs when a person becomes infected with an influenza virus. Flu vaccines contain influenza antigens, which signal the immune system to produce antibodies. These antibodies can protect against invading flu viruses and keep people from getting sick.
There are four types of influenza virus, all of which can mutate throughout the year. These mutations can reduce the effectiveness of seasonal flu vaccines. If the vaccine is well-matched to the circulating influenza virus, it can prevent 40–60 percent of flu infections.
While flu vaccines do not guarantee total immunity, they can reduce the severity of symptoms and lower the risk of flu-related hospitalizations and deaths.
Below are some other reasons to get a flu shot:
- The CDC estimate that flu vaccination prevented 5.3 million influenza illnesses between 2016 and 2017.
- According to a 2018 study, during 2012–2015, adults in New Zealand who had received a flu vaccination were 59 percent less likely to be admitted to an intensive care unit due to the flu, compared with individuals who were not vaccinated.
- A 2017 study found that flu vaccinations reduced the number of flu-related deaths in children aged 6 months to 17 years by 65 percent.
2. Disinfecting surfaces
Viruses can survive on many different types of surface, including:
How long a virus can remain infectious on these surfaces depends on a variety of factors, such as the temperature and humidity. However, a 2016 study suggests that influenza viruses can survive outside the body for extended periods, possibly even months.
People can lower their risk of infection by using products that contain alcohol or bleach to disinfect frequently used objects, such as countertops, desks, and keyboards.
When using disinfectants and cleaning products, it is essential to read the labels and follow the instructions carefully to ensure that surfaces are properly disinfected.
3. Keeping the air clean
Common colds and the flu are types of respiratory infection. The viruses that cause these illnesses replicate in the mucus membranes that line the respiratory tract, and they can travel through the air in tiny droplets of mucus.
This means that people with a cold or the flu can spread the virus whenever they cough or sneeze. For example, influenza viruses can travel up to 3.7 meters, around 12.2 feet, through the air after a person coughs or sneezes.
People can reduce the risk of infecting others by staying home when they are ill and covering their faces when they sneeze or cough.
4. Practicing good hygiene
Washing the hands regularly is an effective way to protect against viral infections.
Viruses can enter the respiratory tract through a person’s eyes, nose, or mouth. A person can infect themselves by touching a contaminated surface and then touching their face.
Washing the hands regularly and thoroughly with clean water and soap is an effective way to protect against viral infections. According to the CDC, proper hand washing can result in a 16–21 percent decrease in respiratory illnesses, such as colds and the flu.
If soap is not available, a person can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. A range of hand sanitizers are available to purchase online.
5. Taking zinc supplements
Zinc is an important micronutrient that occurs naturally in meat, fish, nuts, and other foods.
According to a 2016 review, zinc deficiency can lead to a weakened immune response and inflammatory skin conditions. People with a weakened immune response are less able to fight off infections.
A 2017 meta-analysis suggests that zinc lozenges can reduce the duration of common colds by about 33 percent. Participants in the study were consuming between 80 and 207 milligrams of zinc per day.
6. Eating more fiber
Dietary fiber has many health benefits, including regulating digestion, preventing constipation, and lowering the risk of a number of health conditions.
A 2018 study in mice suggests that dietary fiber may also boost the immune system.
The researchers compared the immune responses in mice that ate a low-fiber diet with those that ate a high-fiber diet. The results of the study suggest that the short-chain fatty acids present in dietary fiber enhanced the mice’s immunity to influenza infections.
7. Avoiding cigarette smoke
Smoking is a known risk factor for several diseases, such as cancer, asthma, and respiratory infections. Breathing in secondhand smoke can also increase a person’s risk of developing these conditions.
People who smoke or regularly inhale cigarette smoke are also more likely to experience severe symptoms when they get colds or the flu. According to a 2018 review, cigarette smoke can affect the immune system and reduce a person’s ability to fight off infections.
Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke are great ways to improve overall health and reduce the chances of getting sick.
Participating in regular physical activity reduces the risk of a number of illnesses.
Regular physical activity can improve a person’s general health and wellbeing and reduce the risk of a number of illnesses, including:
In addition to these benefits, research from 2016 indicates that physical activity can also improve a person’s immune function and decrease their risk of respiratory infections.
A 2018 study also examined the benefits of meditation and exercise for preventing acute respiratory infections. The 8-week study followed 390 participants, who the researchers had randomly assigned to one of three groups:
- no training (control group)
- mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training
- moderate-intensity exercise (EX) training
The researchers reported a 14–33 percent reduction in the number of acute respiratory infections among participants in the MBSR and EX groups, compared with the control group.
People in the MBSR and EX groups who developed acute respiratory infections also experienced less severe symptoms.
The United States Department of Health and Human Services state that any physical activity is better than none.
However, to experience substantial health benefits, they recommend that adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week. A person can spread this activity throughout the week.
Viruses are present all year, but there are ways to prepare for cold and flu season and to reduce the chances of becoming sick.
Getting an annual flu vaccine and practicing good hygiene are great ways for a person to protect themselves and others.
Some lifestyle and dietary changes that can reduce the likelihood of getting sick include regular exercise, increasing zinc and fiber intake, and quitting smoking.