What’s the best way not to get sick? Well, you can’t keep the cold viruses from being all around you. But you can mount a series of defenses strong enough that they can’t get to you.
Here comes fall — and in the United States, that means most adults can expect to get at least two colds between September and March. Experts aren’t certain why, but they believe it’s because cold viruses survive best in cold, dry weather.
What’s the best way not to get sick? Well, you can’t keep the cold viruses from being all around you. But you can mount a series of defenses strong enough that they can’t get to you. Here are the six top doctor-tested ways to keep colds away.
1. Embrace your inner germophobe.
Doctors and other medical professionals, who are on the front lines in the war against colds, have discovered ingenious ways to avoid touching hard surfaces that many other people have also touched (leaving behind cold viruses that can live for up to 24 hours). They open doors with their forearms, for instance, and push elevator buttons with their knuckles.
Train yourself to think in terms of public surfaces, which means anything other people touch. Yes, the handles of shopping carts are germ breeding grounds. But watch out for your own steering wheel as well, if there are several drivers in your family. Doorknobs and toilet seat lids are obvious concerns; and be alert for anything you touch or pick up, including the backs of chairs, the handles of suitcases, the books you share with friends. Can’t remember where your hands have been in the last hour? Solve the problem by washing them frequently, especially after you’ve been in public locations. Carry disinfectant wipes to wipe down surfaces you have to touch and hand sanitizer for when you can’t get to a sink.
2. Make your face off-limits to your hands
Of the more than 200 viruses that cause the common cold, the majority are a type called rhinoviruses, the root of which is rhino, which means nose. Virus particles must make it into the mucous membranes lining the nose in order to cause infection; the nasopharynx — where the nose meets the mouth — is the “sweet spot” for these viruses. If they can reach this spot, it’s very likely you’ll get sick; if you prevent them from getting there, you won’t. And a virus deposited at the base of the nose can easily be inhaled higher up into the nose. Virus particles can’t easily reach the nose on their own, since they aren’t airborne; they need your hands to transport them there. Therefore, if your hands don’t touch your mouth or nose, the virus has no way to hitchhike a ride.
One more thing most people don’t realize: The eyes are connected directly to the nasal passages via the tear ducts. According to one humorous poster displayed in many doctors’ offices, we’re much more likely to catch a cold from putting an infected person’s water glass in the sink and then wiping our eyes than we are from drinking from the glass itself. Keep your hands away from your nose and eyes, and you’ll greatly reduce your chances of catching a cold.
3. Beware of the sneeze.
It may look funny — even a tad uncouth — when you see someone sneeze into the crook of their elbow, but they’re doing you an enormous favor. Colds are spread by physical contact with tiny particles of virus, and when you sneeze, you send droplets of virus-filled mucous raining down onto any handy surface, including your hand if you’ve used it to cover your mouth. So do everyone, including yourself, a favor by training yourself and your family in the art of the elbow sneeze. Both the Red Cross and the Centers for Disease Control have introduced campaigns to teach people to sneeze into their elbows to reduce the transmission of both colds and flu.
If that’s not an easy habit to get into, sneeze into a tissue, then dispose of it promptly and wash your hands. One study found that cold germs can live for several hours on tissues and other porous surfaces.
4. Get your immune-boosting sleep.
Researchers know something night owls just can’t seem to accept: Those who skimp on sleep are more likely to get sick. The reason? While you sleep, your body recharges your immune system, so it’s better equipped to fight off a cold. One 2009 study at Carnegie Mellon University found that people who slept fewer than seven hours a night were three times more likely to develop a cold when exposed to a virus than those who slept eight or more hours per night. Experts don’t know exactly how sleep protects you from getting a cold, but there’s evidence that sleep boosts immune function by increasing the number of “killer cells,” which attack viruses.
5. Hydrate to stay healthy.
When the mucous membranes in the nose and throat are moist, they’re better equipped to fight germs. The best way to ensure moist nasal tissues? Be vigilant about staying well hydrated by drinking four to eight glasses of water throughout the day. For the same reason, many doctors recommend nasal mists and saline nasal sprays at the first sign of a cold. In some studies, they’ve been found to be effective in boosting the body’s natural system of germ eradication, which works to flush germs from your nose.
Nasal membranes dry out even more easily in dry winter air, making them more susceptible to germs, which is one reason experts say we get most colds and flu during the winter. Drinking herbal tea is one good way to keep your protective mucous membranes working; the heat triggers your nasal passages to release moisture, and inhaling the steam bathes the tissues in moisture.
6. Get enough vitamin D.
It’s natural at this time of year to want to arm your immune system with some of the many vitamins and supplements that are touted as having immune-boosting properties. Unfortunately, most of them don’t work. There is one simple and inexpensive vitamin that’s proven to boost immune function, though: vitamin D. Studies show that most adults don’t get enough of this nutrient from their diet alone. Experts don’t yet know exactly how vitamin D protects against colds and flu, but numerous studies show a direct association between low blood levels of vitamin D and frequency of infection. Other research supports the idea that vitamin D boosts immune function in general.
How to know if you might need extra D? Ask yourself if you drink a lot of vitamin-D-fortified milk, (one of the only food sources of this nutrient), live in the south, and spend at least 15 minutes a day outside in direct sunlight without sunscreen. (Remember, north of the 37th parallel, which runs just south of San Francisco in the west and just south of Richmond, Virginia, in the east, the sunlight simply isn’t strong enough to trigger vitamin D production at all during the winter months.)
If not, chances are you’re D-deficient. You can have the level of vitamin D in your blood checked by asking your doctor for a blood test. But a safer approach may be to take a vitamin D supplement no matter what, since there aren’t any negative side effects to worry about unless you take a huge amount. New recommendations are in the process of being developed, but in the meantime, an informal medical consensus recommends taking 2,000 IUs (International Units) of vitamin D daily in the form of vitamin D-3, which is most easily absorbed.