Surviving cold and flu season unscathed is never a breeze, but add COVID-19 into the equation and doctors are calling it a “perfect storm.” In fall and winter, the numbers of people who land in the hospital with the flu swell, and if the coronavirus ramps up at the same time, it would be a dangerous scenario — some dub it a potential “twindemic” — for patients and doctors alike.
Unless you’re a scientist working on a vaccine, is there anything you can do to keep yourself and the people you love safe? Turns out, there’s plenty to do, and the best ways to protect yourself from illness — and get better, faster if you do get sick — are effective and accessible to all.
Here’s where to start.
It’ll be a while until there’s a widely available and safe vaccine for COVID-19, but don’t forget the seasonal vaccine that’s already widely available: The flu shot. Each year, the flu vaccine’s effectiveness is a little different, but on average, it lowers the risk of getting sidelined by the flu by 40% to 60%. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that, in the 2018-2019 flu season, vaccines prevented around 4.4 million influenza illnesses.
If you’re on the fence, consider your potential personal risks and benefits associated with getting or skipping the flu vaccine, and talk to a trusted healthcare practitioner about the best decision for you. Even if your body could withstand the flu, there’s nothing stopping you from spreading it to others who may not be as resilient.
Wear a Mask.
The same swath of fabric or paper that helps prevent the transmission of coronavirus also helps reduce transmission of the cold and flu. If you’re having trouble getting your hands on an N-95 mask and not in a high-risk population, don’t sweat it. Those are hugely important for healthcare workers, people who are in close proximity to COVID-positive people, or older folks who are vulnerable and more likely to develop serious symptoms.
Otherwise, a cloth mask provides good protection — so long as the people around you are also wearing masks. Don’t touch the outside of the mask, either. When you’re in a safe space and ready to remove the mask, wash your hands first if possible, and then grab the ear loops for removal — not the front of the mask where your mouth and nose are.
Avoid Touching Common Surfaces.
The flu virus can live on surfaces for up to 48 hours, and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can hang around plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to three days. So when you’re out and about, minimize the amount that you touch communal areas. Some thoughts on how to do that:
- Press elevator buttons with your elbow.
- Open doors with your hip.
- Keep your hands in your lap when you’re sitting on a bus or in a waiting room.
- Use your own pen, rather than communal ones.
- Carry a touch screen stylus for public touch-screens. Even though things like airport kiosks and ATMs seem like a great way to avoid direct contact with people, they can actually harbor tons of bacteria, since they’re touched by so many people, and the warmth that screens emit accelerate bacterial growth.
Still, you don’t have to live in a bubble. For most everyday germs and viruses, including COVID, it can’t hurt you if it’s only on your hands — you have to transport it to your face or mouth. So that means if you suspect you touched a surface carrying these pathogens, no need to freak out.
Instead, immediately wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds (sing “Happy Birthday” twice to time yourself). In a pinch, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. And it’s not enough to just spritz on the sanitizer — you still have to rub your hands thoroughly, like you do when you’re washing your hands.
Cough and Sneeze Thoughtfully.
Affectionately called “the Dracula,” cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow as though you were hiding your face behind a vampire cloak. You know you’re doing it right when the people around you don’t run away while you’re having a coughing fit.
It used to be that a firm handshake was the sign of a person’s character. These days, no handshake is the polite thing to do. Hand-to-hand contact can pass germs, so best not to risk it. Bump fists or elbows, tap toes, or give someone a tip of the cap.
Keep Your Immune System in Tip-Top Shape.
Even if you take all the necessary precautions, at some point you’ll come into contact with some germs or viruses. That’s life. Luckily, the body comes with its own fortification: Your immune system.
Now, which would you rather have as your personal barrier: A crumbly old wall, or a Fort Knox-level security system? Assuming you chose the latter, here’s how to seriously upgrade your defenses.
Get Adequate Rest.
You may think of sleep as a time to power down, but in fact, it’s the time when the body does tons of repair work and charging up. Healthy adults who were exposed to the cold virus were less likely to get sick if they slept for seven or more hours a night, versus those who slept five to six hours per night, a study published in the journal Sleep found.
Eat a Fiber-Rich Diet.
We know that immune function is linked to the health of our gut microbiome, and getting adequate fiber is part of that. But it seems that dietary fiber has direct influences on the immune system.
When mice were fed a high-fiber diet, it changed how their bone marrow dispatched macrophages, which are large white blood cells that gobble up foreign particulates like bacteria and parasites. In the case of these rodents, studied by scientists in Switzerland and Australia, those that ate higher amounts of fermentable fiber were able to more effectively kill the influenza they were exposed to. Examples of fermentable fiber include artichokes, barley, oats, onions, and peanuts.
Go for Garlic.
In one study, 146 people who took either garlic supplements with 180 mg of allicin content or a placebo every day. At the end of 12 weeks, only 24 of the garlic takers had gotten a cold, versus 65 in the placebo group, Australian researchers found.
Exercise and Meditate.
You knew exercise was going to be on the list. Of course, your body needs to maximize blood flow and get that blood good and oxygenated in order to keep immunity strong.
But here are some surprising findings you might not know about. A study published in the journal PLoS One wanted to find out whether meditation — specifically, mindfulness-based stress reduction or MBSR — was as good as exercise when it came to reducing the occurrence of acute respiratory infection. Turns out, it is. Why the uncanny comparison?
Both exercise and meditation lead to significant decreases in stress and improved mental health. That’s good news for immune strength, because people who are chronically stressed are more likely to get a cold when exposed to those germs, they often take longer to recover, and their symptoms are more severe.
That doesn’t mean you should give up exercise in favor of meditation, or vice versa. Do both to reap maximum benefits.
Eat a Healthy, Colorful Diet.
Vegetables, fruits, and herbs are loaded with phytochemicals, natural plant chemicals that support your immune system so it’s more effective at fighting germs. They appear to do this in part by supporting communication between immune cells. These cells serve as messengers, sending information back and forth that helps the body dispatch the right white blood cells and launch the appropriate response to an attack or invader.
Like humans, plants also must deal with an onslaught of potentially harmful viruses and bacteria. To cope, plants have created all these internal chemicals that counter the microbes — and those benefits extend to us when we consume them. To get the most out of plant foods, eat a variety of different fruits, veggies, and culinary herbs from day to day to get a broader spectrum of beneficial phytochemicals.
Take a Daily Dose of Krill Oil.
Krill oil is rich in two key essential omega-3 fatty acids — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — that play a key role in cell function. And while fish oil might be a better-known way to get your omega-3s, research suggests krill oil has some distinct advantages over fish oil.
For one, the omega-3s in krill are in the form of phospholipids, which are easier for the body to absorb than the triglyceride form of omega-3s in fish oil. Humans need sufficient levels of phospholipids to ensure optimal cell function and growth. In fact, phospholipids have been shown to have protective effects against poor immune function as well as heart disease and liver disease, stress, depression, and more.
Krill oil also contains a naturally-occurring antioxidant called astaxanthin; fish oil does not. In our cells, astaxanthin has been shown to offer protection against cell-damaging free radicals. The result: Less inflammation throughout the body, which reduces vulnerability to all sorts of illnesses.
Is It COVID-19 or the Flu?
In this pandemic, even the slightest tickle in your throat probably has you worried that you’ve got the virus. But if you get sick-sick, then ultimately you’ll need to find out if you have the flu or COVID-19.
According to Lisa Maragakis, M.D., M.P.H., the senior director of infection prevention at The Johns Hopkins Health System in Baltimore, both can lead to fever, cough, body aches, vomiting and diarrhea, but only COVID diminishes a person’s sense of taste and smell. Both are treated with symptom management, and antiviral drugs can help, too.
If you feel sick, the CDC wants you to do a few things:
- Stay home, and ideally away from the people you live with so as not to spread disease.
- Stay off of public transportation.
- Stay hydrated.
- Take over-the-counter acetaminophen to help with the discomfort.
- Keep in touch with your doctor.
However, if breathing becomes difficult, you have chest pain, are having cognitive issues, aren’t able to wake or stay awake, or are blue in the lips or face, call your local emergency department and tell them you’re coming in.
If You Do Get Sick…
The mineral won’t help stave off illness, but a meta-analysis from the University of Helsinki in Finland found that the duration of a cold was shortened by 33% among those who sucked on zinc lozenges. The ideal dose seems to be about 80 mg per day, ideally in the form of zinc acetate. (Zinc gluconate may bind to zinc and inhibit absorption.)
Load Up on Vitamin C.
Vitamin C supports the various functions of cells in both the innate and adaptive immune system. Normally, we can get enough vitamin C from food; citrus, tomatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and bell peppers are some top sources. Getting a ton more vitamin C probably won’t do much to prevent illness, since any excess is excreted in urine.
But when you’re sick or stressed, the body goes through a ton more vitamin C, and we don’t produce our own. To restock your stores, aim for 1,000 mg of vitamin C once an hour for a few hours, and up to 16,000 mg a day until your health is restored.
Take Glutathione and N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC).
Supplementing with glutathione (a powerful antioxidant) and NAC — an amino acid known to help relieve symptoms of respiratory conditions — can help with lung inflammation, like that associated with the coronavirus. In fact, it’s been shown to help keep COVID-19 patients out of the hospital or off of ventilators. Aim for 1,000 mg glutathione and 400 to 500 mg of NAC a day.
Sniff Eucalyptus Oil Extract.
In studies, eucalyptus oil was found to boost the immune system’s response to pathogens. Put a few drops in an essential oil diffuser, or drop some in a bowl of boiling hot water, drape a towel over your head, and breathe in the steam for as long as you can. It works with other essential oils as well, such as oregano oil, which has strong antimicrobial properties.
Sip on Ginger Tea.
The root has extraordinary antiviral and anti-inflammatory powers, and if your stomach’s upset, it can help with that as well. To make ginger tea, thoroughly wash a few big chunks of ginger, peel the outside, and finely chop (or use a ginger grater). Boil in a pot of water, then strain through a fine mesh strainer. Mix with a big spoonful of buckwheat honey, which can help soothe your throat and reduce your cough, too.
Try Andrographis Paniculata.
This medicinal plant is used worldwide in the treatment of diseases like cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, skin diseases, snake bites, fever, sore throat, bronchitis, and — fittingly — influenza. Take between 500 mg and 2,000 mg of andrographis two or three times a day if you’re feeling under the weather. It comes in the form of dried extract capsules as well as tinctures. Use it liberally.
Use a Humidifier.
Infusing moisture in the air can help ease symptoms of respiratory illnesses, like coughing, and help with dry sinuses and bloody noses, too. But take care not to replace one problem with another, as humidifiers can easily become dispensers of mold and bacteria.
To keep yours clean:
- Used distilled or demineralized water (as opposed to tap water).
- Change the water daily.
- Clean it every three days with water and 3% hydrogen peroxide solution.
- Change the filters as directed.
- Replace the units if they look a little grimy.
Ultimately, the goal of this guide is to arm you with the natural tools that will help you stay well not only this winter, but year-round and in the many years to come. The more you make the preventative measures a daily habit, the stronger your immune system will be — and the better you’ll be able to evade the troublemaking microbes that inevitably cross our paths.
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