Winter is coming. So is cold and flu season.

Winter is coming. So is cold and flu season.

Winter is around the corner, and with it, comes cold and flu season.

While this year’s efforts at avoiding the virus is complicated by COVID-19, influenza remains a dangerous illness – an estimated 400,000 people were hospitalized in the U.S. alone for the it in the 2019-2020 season, with 22,000 deaths.

“First and foremost, people must get their flu shot,” says Dr. Kevin Koo, a family medicine physician at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. “It is the most important tool we have in fighting the flu, both on an individual and communal level.”

Avoiding those who are sick and frequently washing your hands and high touch surfaces are also obvious but extremely effective ways to ensure you aren’t catching any bugs this winter.

But for those looking to make sure their body is a lean, mean, germ- and virus-fighting-machine, Dr. Koo had a few pieces of advice.

Ensure you have a balanced diet

Many foods are touted as ways to supercharge your body’s defenses, including large doses of Vitamin C among others. Surprisingly, taking big doses of Vitamin C after developing a cold does not decrease the risk of catching a cold in the general population and may only shorten the length of colds if taken regularly before catching one.

Vitamins A and D as well as Zinc support immune system functions, and generally eating a variety of foods rich in antioxidants can help you stay healthy.

“Ultimately, generally making sure you are getting your daily recommended vitamins, minerals and calories will be enough for most people to keep themselves healthier,” says Dr. Koo.

Don’t smoke and limit your alcohol intake

Drinking responsibly and kicking your cigarette habit this winter may not just improve your overall health – and keep you warmer during smoke breaks – but could help you stave off the cold and flu. Excessive alcohol consumption and smoking harms the immune system and can make the body less successful at fighting disease.

Try not to overstress

Studies dating back to the 1980s have shown that ongoing stress, even for small amounts of time, can inhibit the production of T-cells and other frontline microbial defenders of the body. Long-term or chronic stress, through too much wear and tear, can ravage the immune system – particularly in those who are older or already sick, two vulnerable populations for the flu and colds.

“Even at a time when you may have limited options for stress relief, it’s important to take time for yourself and your family to decompress and de-stress,” says Dr. Koo.

Get your sleep

Sleep does so much for our bodies – but it may actually play a huge role in supporting your immune system.

With extended amounts of sleep, the body releases a type of protein called cytokines. These proteins can help regulate the immune system and help fight off infection. Studies have also shown lower T-cells in sets of twins who had different levels of sleep each night.

The other consequences of insufficient sleep, according to the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute, include increased risk of obesity, heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke.

Be sure to keep exercising

While options are more limited when it gets chilly outside, exercise can play a large role in fighting off illness. Exercising not only ensures your body is at its best when it comes to fighting illness, but exercising increases circulation, meaning white blood cells are going through your body at a faster rate,  and releases several hormones that  lower stress and have other benefits.

Dr. Koo also advises all patients to know the difference between the common cold, the flu and COVID-19 and when to call the doctor for each.

“There’s no sure-fire way to ensure you won’t get sick this season,” he says. “But by taking some precautions and keeping yourself healthy, you can ensure that if you do get it, you will recover faster and suffer fewer consequences.”

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About the Author

Nathan Lurz
Nathan Lurz

Nathan Lurz, health enews contributor, is a public affairs coordinator at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital. He has nearly a decade of professional news experience as a reporter and editor, and a lifetime of experience as an enthusiastic learner. On the side, he enjoys writing even more, tabletop games, reading, running and explaining that his dog is actually the cutest dog, not yours, sorry.