When it comes to cold and flu season, the numbers are nothing to sneeze at: Each fall and winter, Americans catch an estimated 2 billion colds, and up to 20 percent of us get seasonal flu. Add to that the threat of the H1N1 virus (aka, swine flu) this year and you may be tempted to consider hibernating for the winter. But there's plenty you can do to lower your risks for the season's biggest viral threats. Read on.
Boost your immunity: Lower your risk for sniffles and sneezes with these stay-well strategies.
- Get out more. In a recent study, researchers discovered that social butterflies were less likely than wallflowers to catch a cold. One theory is that social people take better care of themselves-getting enough sleep and eating well. Some experts also think the same gene that contributes to sociability may help fight infection.
- Get some shut-eye. People who log less than seven hours of sleep per night are about three times more likely to catch a cold after being exposed to the rhinovirus than those who snooze eight hours or more, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
- Get moving. In one study, only 30 percent of women age 55-plus who walked or cycled moderately for 45 minutes, five days per week came down with a cold, compared to nearly half of the women who only attended stretching sessions once a week.
- Don't starve a cold. Your body needs energy to fight infection, says Dr. Elizabeth M. Gardner, a nutritional immunology professor at Michigan State University. "If you cut back on calories, your body may not be able to mount an immune response," she says.
- Chill out. If you're on edge, you may eat poorly and smoke or drink too much, increasing your risk for colds and flu. Stress can also alter the immune system, meaning your body may not be as able to fight infection.
Germs Live Here: Flu viruses can live 8 to 12 hours on paper or cloth, 24 to 48 hours on nonporous places like doorknobs and phones and up to 72 hours on wet surfaces, like towels and faucets, says infectious disease expert Dr. J. Owen Hendley. Your best defense? Wash your hands, especially after touching these cold- and flu-friendly surfaces.
- ATM, elevator and photocopier buttons
- Gym equipment
- Shopping cart handles
- Kids' toys
- Computer keyboards and mice
- Remote controls
Dirty Work: Go ahead, take a sick day. Please! That's the message public-health types are trumpeting, especially this year. It's no longer a badge of honor to tough out an illness at the office. And good thing: The workplace — women's offices in particular — is a prime spot to get exposed to all kinds of germs. According to a study by Dr. Charles Gerba of the University of Arizona, the bacteria levels in women's offices were nearly three times higher than in men's. Here, Gerba and other health experts share their advice for cleaning up your act at the office. — Heather Larson
- Store purses, briefcases and backpacks in a drawer or cabinet away from where you eat. Because they're often placed on floors and other surfaces, Gerba says they become walking "bag-teria." Regularly wipe the outside of your bags with alcohol-it won't harm leather.
- Use disinfecting wipes on phones, desktops, file cabinet handles and computer keyboards at least once a week.
- Don't use cloth towels or sponges in the break room. They're breeding grounds for germs, so you're just spreading the stuff around.
- Routinely use disinfecting wipes on appliance handles, door knobs and light switches in the break room.
- Don't eat at your desk. Gerba's research shows that the average desktop contains 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat. Put a paper towel down to serve as a placemat in the lunchroom, suggests nurse and infectious disease expert Deborah Henley of Banner Estrella Medical Center in Phoenix, Ariz.
- Wash your coffee mug and water glass with hot, soapy water every day.
Feel Better: These home remedies can help soothe your symptoms.
- For congestion: Try this tip from The Elements of Life by Su-Mei Yu: Lightly pound 10-12 slices fresh ginger and six peeled shallots and place in a basin of hot water. Add 10 drops each eucalyptus and lemon essential oils (available at natural grocers like Whole Foods Market). Cover your head with a towel over the basin and inhale the steam for up to two minutes. Uncover and breathe. Repeat until the steam dissipates, up to 4 times a day until the congestion disappears.
- For a sore throat: Dissolve one teaspoon of salt in a cup of warm water. Gargle with the mixture four times daily to help moisturize and soothe your throat.
- For achy muscles: Try adding caraway seeds-the spice that gives rye bread a touch of licorice flavor-to a quick bread or cookie recipe. Caraway has calming qualities that can help ease tight muscles and stomach aches, says Yu.
Myth: Vitamin C is the most important nutrient in preventing colds and flu.
Fact: The OJ vitamin may have gotten a lot of press about its supposed anti-cold and flu effects, but new research suggests vitamin D may be the real magic bullet. In a study published earlier this year, subjects who had the lowest D levels were about 40 percent more likely to have had a recent cold than people with the highest levels of the vitamin. Experts recommend getting 800-1200 IUs of vitamin D per day. Ten minutes (no more) of sun exposure daily will do the trick, or you can ask your doctor to recommend a multi-vitamin or supplement containing 800 IUs of vitamin D. Eating foods like salmon, shrimp and D-fortified milk can also help prevent the vitamin deficiency.