Winter: it’s the worst! Not only are you cooped up inside, but you’re stuck there fighting some vague illness, eating too much food, drinking lots of booze, and stressing over end-of-year family time. Winter is basically designed to make you feel like crap.
To find out the best way to make it through the colder months illness-free, we dug through the research and talked to Dr. Paul Grewal, internist and assistant medical professor at Hofstra. What we came up with are the best ways to avoid spending the entire season as a sniffling, blanket-covered ball on the couch.
Cover up your cool exterior
“Catching a cold” has nothing to do with a drop in your body temperature, it turns out. Dr. Grewal explains, “The cold virus replicates more efficiently at colder temperatures. Your core temperature is still the same, but your nose and hands are cooler, which helps the virus spread.”
Not only does the flu virus replicate more easily in the cold, but it can develop a thick, protective shell when temperatures drop, making it harder to destroy (that’s not terrifying at all). With your hands and nose being the typical culprits for collecting and spreading germs, make sure you keep those bad boys covered. People may generally LOVE your cold, tough exterior, but trust us, so does the flu.
Steer clear of staying dry to the bone
If it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity, but when it’s neither the heat nor the humidity, it’s flu time. Viruses like dry air, is what we’re saying.
Even in higher humidity, cold air can’t hold enough water to push viruses to the ground. Combine low relative humidity with cold temperatures, and you’ve got yourself the perfect storm of viral breeding grounds.
This one-two punch is especially disastrous for your sinuses. Way up in the gold-digger territory of your nose exist thousands of tiny hair-like structures called cilia, which move in rhythm to keep out invaders. Cold, dry conditions cause the cilia to slow down and dry out, creating sinus blockage and opening the door for pathogens.
How do you stop them? Dr. Grewal is a big fan of neti pots (when used properly) for clearing out the sinuses. You could also try humming, since it greatly increases your nasal nitric oxide, which has strong antimicrobial effects.
So disregard your co-workers’ complaints, and hum your heart out. Your health is at stake, dammit!
Don’t recycle those germs
Now that the cold, dry air outside has set the mood for viral reproduction, let’s trap all those germs inside! This is exactly what we do when we blast the heat with no windows open.
Even if the warmer temperatures inside weaken viruses, chances are pretty good that the closed-unit air circulation and close quarters of your office/school/house/gym/mall/IT’S EVERYWHERE fling the bugs from Janice, to Bob, to you, and back again, a dozen times a minute.
Since you’d no longer be employed if you opened all the windows in the office, your best bet is to fortify your defense system. Dr. Grewal recommends washing your hands often throughout the day, emphasizing that recent research shows that it’s actually the heat, not the soap, that kills germs. And instead of drinking from the communal coffee pot (sounds pretty gross now, doesn’t it?), make yourself a green tea, which contains well-researched antiviral compounds to give your immune system an extra boost.
Or chew on this: xylitol, used to naturally sweeten certain gums, has a proven antimicrobial effect against the strep throat virus.
Just try not to hum, slurp green tea, and smack your gum all at once. That’ll land you back in the cold in no time.
Take vitamins that actually work
Do not take vitamin C! Or any derivative that purports to boost immunity thanks to vitamin C! It won’t work!
In spite of popular perception, vitamin C does little, if anything, to prevent or treat the common cold. Take just one step further down the vitamin alphabet, and you’ve found yourself the real immunity hero: vitamin D. Boasting more than just bone-building benefits, vitamin D has recently been hailed for its ability to increase autoimmunity on a cellular level. The good news: your body naturally produces vitamin D just by being in the summer sun for a few minutes.
Yes, you should get a flu shot
Not into vitamins and handwashing? Try modern medicine! But still wash your hands, probably.
A lot of people skip the flu shot, because they can’t understand how a 59% efficacy rate -- which would qualify as an “F” in virtually any other scenario -- is hailed as a global triumph.
But the flu isn’t like other viruses that have vaccines. Pigs in Uganda, birds in Tokyo, and your grandma in Utah can all catch different strains of the flu, which can travel between species and across continents. With these strains constantly mutating, developing a vaccine isn’t a one-shot deal. A global team of scientists has to figure out what the hell kind of flus are going to be most prevalent six to nine months down the road (no pressure), then do their best to imitate it. That’s why you have to get a shot every year.
With last year’s flu seeing a rise in young deaths, do yourself a favor and get the $10 (maybe $20) shot at your local drug store. If doing it to protect yourself isn’t enough motivation, then consider doing it for the children, the elderly, and those with weakened immunities. The flu vaccine is least effective for those who need it most, so they’re counting on you to keep them safe… you Superman, you.
Switch up your over-the-top eating habits
It’s feastin’ season! As you hook yourself up to the gravy I.V., your waistline isn’t the only thing that expands. Even your genes become inflamed during the colder months, working in overdrive to fight off infections -- bad news because inflammation is linked to a number of major diseases.
Dr. Grewal recommends filling your diet with anti-inflammatory foods, including olive oil, leafy greens, nuts, and fatty fish. Foods to avoid? All your favorite ones, of course. Fried foods, processed meats, refined carbs, and sodas are just a few of the triggers that can bust a weakened immune system.
If it’s any consolation (yes!), moderate alcohol consumption may actually boost your immune system and fight off infections. So at least you can have a couple beers to go with that salmon-kale salad.
Try not to freak out when you get too much family time
Stress is just a part of the holidays, whether you’re trying to hold your tongue while listening to Uncle Steve’s political views, or trampling customers on Black Friday because you have to purchase the very first on-sale 4K TV.
It’s well established that stress can down-regulate the immune system, making you more prone to illness. As much as you can -- and believe us, family time is tough, especially when gift-giving is involved -- try to take measures to calm down.
Don’t be a completely motionless blob
It may seem like now is the perfect time to try hibernation, but don’t; you are not a bear, and you need exercise!
The matter of whether you should work out when you’re sick is tricky, since we don’t know how sick you are. According to Dr. Grewal, moderate exercise can both provide a healthy hormonal boost, and speed up the process of immune cell distribution throughout your body.
A good, if general, rule of thumb is to listen to your body before pushing yourself too hard. If it feels like you can’t go for a run, don’t.
Winter may be the worst, but you can emerge in spring bigger and stronger than the rest, ready to hunt salmon and forage and… yeah, you’ll just be healthier than you’ve been in many, many winters.
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Nicholas Knock is a freelance writer for Thrillist because he hummed too much at his last job. You can follow him when he’s back on Twitter.