Flu: 23 Immunity-Boosting Tips
Cold and flu? No, thank you.
Here’s a surprise: You may spend more time each year nursing a sore throat, fever, and runny nose than you do on vacation. Add it up: Adults get about three colds a year on average, each lasting a week or two. On top of that, 5 to 20% of us will also get the flu, which can linger even longer. That’s a month—or more!
This year, take back that time—and your health. These tested tips for fighting colds and flu can help you stay well all winter.
More from Prevention: 5 Ways To Prevent A Cold
Your mind can cut your chances of catching a cold by 40 to 50%, according to a 2012 University of Wisconsin, Madison, study. Fifty-one people who used mindfulness techniques logged 13 fewer illnesses and 51 fewer sick days than a control group during one cold-and-flu season, probably because meditation reduces physical effects of stress that weaken the immune system.
More from Prevention: Meditation To Match Your Personality
2. Try probiotics
“We recommend taking probiotics—foods or supplements containing bacteria that are good for your health—that include Lactobacillus, because it can reduce the risk of both respiratory and gastrointestinal infections,” says Mike Gleeson, PhD, professor of exercise biochemistry at Loughborough University in England. And people taking probiotics were 42% less likely to get a cold than those on a placebo, according to a 2011 meta-analysis of 10 studies.
3. Eat more garlic
“Allicin, a substance in crushed garlic, helps fight viruses,” says Richard Nahas, MD, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa. In a British study, volunteers who took a daily 180 mg allicin supplement caught 63% fewer colds over 12 weeks than those taking a placebo. Garlic cloves contain less allicin (5 to 9 mg), but even two raw cloves a day may help, says Randy Horwitz, MD, PhD, medical director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine in Tucson. (Find tasty ways to add more garlic to your life with our Recipe Finder.)
4. Practice qigong
This Chinese mind-body exercise combines breath control and slow movements to reduce stress and improve focus, but it may also help combat colds. Twenty-seven varsity swimmers in a University of Virginia study learned qigong, and during their seven-week training season, those who practiced it at least once a week got 70% fewer respiratory infections than swimmers who used it less.
More from Prevention: 5 Qigong Moves To Reduce Stress
People who exercise five or more days a week spend 43% fewer days with upper-respiratory infections, according to an Appalachian State University study. “I make sure I exercise to stay healthy,” says lead author David Nieman, DrPH. “Aim for 30 to 60 minutes daily. It boosts blood flow so that the immune cells circulate throughout the body.”
6. Get vaccinated
“For flu protection, nothing is as directly effective as vaccination,” says Prevention advisory board member David L. Katz, MD, MPH. If the post-shot muscle pain makes you injection-shy (and you’re between ages 18 and 64), visit fluzone.com to find a location using intradermal shots, which are injected into skin and use much smaller needles.
More from Prevention: 4 Flu Shot Myths—Busted
7. Wash (and dry!) your hands often
Cleaning your hands frequently—especially after touching anyone or anything that may be germy—is key to defending yourself against cold and flu viruses. But drying hands thoroughly is just as important, because germs cling to your skin more easily when it’s wet. Be sure to replace damp towels with dry ones often.
8. Get enough sleep
Your immune system needs rest to keep you healthy. In one study done at Carnegie Mellon University, even if people said they felt well rested if they’d averaged fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night, they were almost three times as likely to get a cold as those who got eight hours or more of sack time. (Not the best sleeper? Here are 10 tips to get your best night’s sleep ever.)
9. Add astragalus
In test-tube studies, the root astragalus (uh-STRAG-uh-lus) activates T-cells, the white blood cells that fight off viruses, and experts believe it can prevent colds in real life too. “Astragalus seems to work very well, and your body doesn’t develop a tolerance to it, so you can eat it daily,” Dr. Horwitz says. Use the earthy root as a vegetable, chopping up a three-inch piece and adding it to soup. Or try 250 mg in standardized capsules twice a day.
10. Use herbs and spices
The oregano in your spaghetti sauce and the mustard on your turkey sandwich can boost your immune system, says Prevention advisory board member Tieraona Low Dog, MD, the author of Life Is Your Best Medicine. In winter, she suggests, flavor bean and poultry dishes with oregano and thyme, and add 1/4 teaspoon of turmeric to 1 cup of plain yogurt for a spicy dip.
11. Cut back on sweets
After people in a study at Loma Linda University consumed six tablespoons of sugar (whether in orange juice, honey, or sugary drinks), their infection-fighting white blood cells lost the ability to fend off bacteria and viruses. Your immune system stays depressed for several hours after you eat or drink sugar, so if you down a soda every few hours (three servings could put you over the six-tablespoon mark), your resistance will be lowered for much of the day.
12. Lose weight
If you’re carrying extra pounds, the flu vaccine won’t work as well, and if you do get a bug, you’re likely to become sicker. After vaccination, antibodies against the flu increase normally in obese people but decline prematurely over the next few months, lowering protection. “If you’re obese, be really vigilant about hand washing and other preventive measures,” says Peter Mancuso, PhD, associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan. “And even a 5 to 10% weight loss can help prevent all types of diseases.”
More from Prevention: 100 Simple Ways To Lose Weight
13. Drink enough water
If you come down with a virus, your doctor may tell you to drink plenty of fluids to reduce your symptoms. But Jamey Wallace, MD, chief medical officer at Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle, says staying hydrated may stave off infections. “Your mucous membranes and the immune cells in their secretions defend against cold viruses, and they can’t work as well if you’re dehydrated,” Dr. Wallace says. His advice: Divide your weight by 3. That’s how many ounces of fluid you need daily, plus a glass of water for each caffeinated or alcoholic drink.
14. Take care of your toothbrush
Viruses on one toothbrush can contaminate others it touches. Make sure your family’s brushes are in a holder that keeps them apart, and let them dry thoroughly. (If you get a bug, you don’t need to replace your brush: You already have antibodies against that virus.)
More from Prevention: Is Your Toothpaste Wrecking Your Teeth?
15. Pop a vitamin C
A gram a day of this old standby does help alleviate colds, Dr. Nahas found in a review of studies about integrative approaches to preventing colds. In adults, the result is a modest 8% reduction in symptoms. It doesn’t sound like much, “but that can shorten your cold by 1 to 2 days,” he says.
Even though people spread cold and flu germs, the more social relationships you have—family, friends, clubs, churches, volunteer groups–the less likely you are to get sick. Having a wide range of friends and acquaintances can provide psychological benefits—such as greater optimism and less depression—that boost the immune system, and they can also influence you to maintain good health habits, like not smoking.
More from Prevention: The 8 Friends Every Woman Needs
17. Stop biting your nails…
…and wiping or rubbing your eyes or nose. You can’t always avoid getting germs on your hands, but you don’t have to give them a lift into your respiratory system. “When you touch your mouth, nose, or eyes, you put the viruses right where they want to go to cause mischief,” Dr. Nieman says. Keeping your hands where they belong sounds easy, but it’s a challenge, he adds: Adults touch their faces about 15 times every hour.
18. Eat mushrooms
Many kinds of mushrooms may help boost immunity, but medicinal fungi like shiitake, reishi, and maitake may be particularly beneficial because they encourage immune cells to multiply.
19. Take what you trust
Believing that a remedy is effective may make it actually work. In a study of echinacea as a cold remedy, people were told they were taking the herb, and those who believed strongly in its effects had shorter, milder colds—regardless of whether their pills were echinacea or a placebo. “If there’s a remedy your family’s used for generations, and you believe in it and have used it before, by all means add it to your regimen,” Dr. Nahas says.
More from Prevention: The Best Vitamins For Women
20. Make your own sanitizing spray
To clean surfaces, mix 8 ounces of purified water and 30 drops of essential oil (try lavender, rosemary, thyme, tea tree, or sage) in a spray bottle. Take aim at doorknobs, phones, or anyplace viruses are likely to linger, Dr. Low Dog says.
21. Be cautious about carriers…
More than 8% of people without symptoms during cold-and-flu season are harboring cold viruses, according to a recent study from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. The takeaway: When you’re around others, wash your hands often.
22. …and things they may have touched
Flu viruses can live up to eight hours on surfaces, so it’s wise to clean whatever you can that may have been handled within that time frame. And think beyond the usual suspects: New research points to workplace hot spots like vending-machine buttons and the handles on break-room faucets, microwaves, and shared refrigerators. Use a disinfectant wipe or tissue if you have to touch potentially contaminated objects, and don’t forget to wash your hands afterward.
More from Prevention: 10 Worst Germ Hot Spots
23. Eat more fruit
“We looked at everything people ate, but the impressive benefit of fruit just jumped out of the data,” says Dr. Nieman, who also studied the effects of diet on colds. People who ate three or more servings daily had 25% fewer days with respiratory symptoms during cold-and-flu season than those who ate one or fewer. The vitamin C content may provide part of the punch, but fruit also contains polyphenols, which have antiviral properties.
Check out our How to Prevent Anything center for more natural home remedies.