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Supercharge your body against colds, the flu and COVID-19
From basic prevention to more creative ideas, here’s how you can stay healthy all season long.
Woke up with a sore throat? Sneezes won’t stop? Kids up all night coughing? Being sick is never fun. Your symptoms could be caused by many things, like the flu or a common cold. And we can’t forget about COVID-19.
There’s a lot to look forward to in the months ahead, and especially the holidays and winter fun. Who wants to miss out, right? OK, so maybe you can’t prevent every illness. But you can still do a lot now to help your body fight off germs later. Start with these science-backed tips straight from an Optum infectious disease doctor.
How your body beats infections
Your immune system is your first line of defense against germs. It’s a complicated network that includes your skin, breathing tracts, white blood cells and lymph nodes. All these work together to fight off germs that try to get into the body.1
“We are born with great protections,” says Alwyn F. Rapose, MD. He’s an infectious disease specialist at Reliant Medical Group, part of Optum, in Worcester, Massachusetts.
“And throughout our lives, our bodies acquire more,” he says. "We develop some protections based on the exposures that we have to infectious agents (germs). And we build others by taking vaccines or interventions that doctors give us.”
The basics of preventing colds, the flu and COVID-19
One of the great things about these stay-well strategies is that they also help protect the people around you. And after nearly three years of pandemic living, you’re probably a pro at them:
- Get the annual flu shot.
- Get your COVID-19 shots and boosters.
- Wash your hands often, including every time you come home.
- Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth unnecessarily.
- Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your elbow.
- Ask your pharmacist about over the counter medications you can take for your symptoms.
- Talk to your doctor about medication for flu and COVID-19.2
Consider these moves table stakes. They’re the bare minimum for staying healthy.
Need to see a doctor as soon as today? Book an online appointment with an Optum doctor. No insurance needed. Schedule now.
5 healthy habits that fight germs
Now learn how these everyday routines work to keep you healthy. Then commit to sticking to them.
Get enough sleep. Those seven to eight hours in dreamland matter a lot to your immune system. During sleep, your body produces substances that help fight off germs. Not getting enough hours of rest can lower your defenses.3
One study found that people who slept five hours or less per night were more likely to catch infections such as COVID-19. And another reported that teens who slept only six hours a night were more likely to come down with a cold or the flu.4
Need help getting more sleep? These tips can help.
Exercise daily. Better sleep. Less worry. Feeling great in your jeans. Fewer sick days.
Less than 60 minutes a day is all your body usually needs.5 That can mean 20 to 30 minutes of daily walking, playing tennis or having a dance party.
Exercise helps your blood circulate. That keeps your white blood cells in a healthy flow. These cells help your body fight germs, including those that cause common colds and the flu. A workout also gets your lungs working better. Heavier breathing may help push out germs from your lungs, which lowers your chance of getting sick.6
And if you get your annual flu shot, there’s more good news. Exercising may improve your vaccine response. That means it may help you get even more protection from your jab.5
Eat your vitamins. Think of your germ-fighting cells as soldiers. They need the right foods to be in top shape. Here are some of the most important vitamins and minerals your “soldiers” need:7
- Zinc. It fights off bacteria and viruses by stopping their growth head-on.8 Seafood, red meat and whole grains are all great sources of this nutrient.
- Vitamin A. This micronutrient builds the body’s immune system. It preps your cells for germs by helping them make an immune response plan.9 Green, leafy vegetables and fruits such as cantaloupe, apricots and mangoes have vitamin A.
- Vitamin C. It helps your immune system stay running by telling immune cells it’s time to attack and kill the germs.10 Get this vitamin by eating oranges, grapefruit, tomatoes, broccoli and baked potatoes.
- Vitamin D. It fights bacteria and viruses by balancing parts of your immune system.11 Salmon, tuna, milk and yogurt in your meals give your body vitamin D.
Stock up on all your health essentials including vitamins, cold remedies and more at the Optum Store. Shop now.
Let yourself relax. Stress is a part of life. But when you go through many tough events or are maxed out every day, your immune system can struggle.
Stress hormones such as cortisol can slow a good immune response. And stress can increase inflammation in the body. Inflammation is one way the body heals during infections. But if levels are always high, your body may have trouble responding to a real threat.
This can lead to bad outcomes such as:12
- A lower response to vaccines
- Worsening of symptoms
- Slow-healing wounds
When you take time to relax, you put the brakes on that stress response. Any activity that makes you happy and calm works. Call a friend. Pick up your knitting needles. Stream your favorite show. You choose. Surrounding yourself with positive energy is vitally important, says Dr. Rapose.
Need more ideas? We’ve got 10 ways to feel calmer in minutes.
Skip cigarettes and alcohol. The toxins in cigarettes can weaken your immune system.13,14 And alcohol can damage the liver as well as nerve cells. That affects your response to infections. The result? Longer-lasting colds and flu symptoms.15
Is it possible that even with all these strategies, can you still get a cold, the flu or other illnesses? Yes. But at least your body will be ready. And you’ll have a better shot at a faster recovery.
We’re here to help you stay as healthy as possible — and recover as quickly as you can — all season long. Check out our winter wellness guide now.
- MedlinePlus. Immune system and disorders. Last reviewed August 17, 2020. Accessed July 29, 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventive steps. Last reviewed November 18, 2021. Accessed July 29, 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Six tips to enhance immunity. Last reviewed September 30, 2021. Accessed July 29, 2022.
- Communications Biology. Role of sleep deprivation in immune-related disease risk and outcomes. Published November 18, 2021. Accessed August 1, 2022.
- Journal of Sport and Health Science. The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. Published online November 16, 2018. Accessed August 1, 2022.
- MedlinePlus. Exercise and immunity. Last reviewed January 23, 2020. Accessed August 1, 2022.
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Learn how to boost your immune system with healthy foods. Accessed August 9, 2022.
- Advances in Nutrition. The role of zinc in antiviral immunity. Published April 22, 2019. Accessed August 19, 2022.
- Journal of Clinical Medicine. Role of vitamin A in the immune system. Published September 6, 2018. Accessed August 19, 2022.
- Nutrients. Vitamin C and immune function. Published November 3, 2017. Accessed August 19, 2022.
- Nutrients. Immunologic effects of vitamin D on human health and disease. Published July 15, 2020. Accessed August 19, 2022.
- Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. Effectiveness of stress-reducing interventions on the response to challenges to the immune system: A meta-analytic review. Published August 6, 2019. Accessed August 1, 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health effects of cigarette smoking. Last reviewed October 29, 2021. Accessed August 1, 2022.
- Oncotarget. Impacts of cigarette smoking on immune responsiveness: Up and down or upside down? Published November 25, 2016. Accessed August 19, 2022.
- Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care. A review on exploring evidence-based approach to harnessing the immune system in times of corona virus pandemic: Best of modern and traditional Indian system of medicine. Published August 25, 2020. Accessed August 9, 2022.
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