Parents, Help Your Immune System Fight Colds and Flu

Parents spend a lot of time around germs. After all, most kids get six to eight colds a year. With each bout lasting roughly a week, there’s no escaping sneezes and coughs.

But that doesn’t mean you’re sentenced to sickness: You need to protect yourself from germs and build a healthy immune system.

Made up of cells and proteins, your immune system is your body’s natural protection. It seeks out invaders, such as viruses and bacteria, and destroys them. Research suggests that everyday habits, such as eating nutritious meals and getting enough sleep, can affect the way your immune system works.

With the right moves, you can give yourself -- and your family -- a fighting chance this cold and flu season.

Fuel for the Fight

There’s no one diet that strengthens your immune system. But eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods can help your body better fight off viruses and control inflammation.

Fruits and vegetables are top sources of the vitamins and minerals needed to support the immune system. They’re also high in antioxidants, which prevent damage to your immune cells. Whole grains, beans, and nuts also deliver these important nutrients.

To protect against cold and flu, add these foods to your family’s grocery list.

  • Berries and citrus fruits: They’re high in vitamin C, an antioxidant that helps your immune system make virus-fighting antibodies.
  • Sweet potatoes and carrots: These vegetables are loaded with vitamin A, which helps manage the immune system.
  • Chickpeas: Also called garbanzo beans, they contain the mineral zinc, which helps your body fight off bacteria and viruses. Other sources include nuts and meat.
  • Dark leafy greens: Spinach, kale, and other dark leafy greens are packed with vitamins C, E, and other antioxidants.
  • Almonds: Snacking on them gives you zinc and vitamin E.
  • Yogurt: You’ll get probiotics -- healthy bacteria that promote gut health and your immune system.

Don’t forget to drink up.

Staying hydrated supports your immune system. Water flushes waste and toxins. It’s also used to make blood, which delivers nutrients and immune cells throughout the body. Women should get 11.5 cups of water a day and men need 15 cups of water a day from liquids and foods. Don’t share your glass or cup with others.

Do you need a supplement?

Supplements to fend off colds and the flu are popular. But do they really work? Here’s what science has to say.

  • Multivitamins: You probably don’t need one if you eat a mix of healthy foods. But if you don’t, you may have to take one. Falling short on certain nutrients can raise your risk of infection, so a multivitamin can cover your bases.
  • Vitamin C: Research shows that it doesn’t protect against a cold, but it may slightly improve your symptoms.
  • Zinc: Taking it orally when a cold starts may help you get better faster. But it can cause stomach issues.

Vitamin D: In one study, taking a vitamin D supplement lowered the risk of getting an upper respiratory infection. About 40% of Americans don’t get enough of this vitamin, so ask your doctor if you need a supplement.

Wash Up, Wipe Things Down

To stay healthy, you have to take things into your own hands -- literally. Washing your hands regularly is one of the best ways to fend off sickness.

Germs can live for hours or even days on surfaces. If someone coughs on a handle and then you grab it, the virus can spread onto your hands. You can infect yourself by touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.

Soap traps these germs, and water rinses them away. Although it seems simple enough, research shows that 97% of Americans don’t wash their hands correctly. To scrub up the right way, teach your family to follow these steps:

  • Wet your hands with warm or cold water. (Hot water can dry out your skin.)
  • Apply soap.
  • Rub your hands together to create a lather. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and underneath your fingernails.
  • Scrub your hands for 20 seconds, or the amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.
  • Rinse your hands beneath clean, running water.
  • Shake your hands a few times. Then dry with a clean towel or hand dryer.

When to Wash

Make handwashing a habit in your family. Remind everyone to hit the sink during these times.

Before:

  • Eating
  • Touching your mouth, eyes, or nose, or a cut or scrape

After:

  • Using the bathroom
  • Playing on playground equipment
  • Touching pets or pet food
  • Handling garbage

Hand Sanitizer Dos and Don’ts

Washing with soap and water is the best way to clean your hands. But if you’re not near a sink, hand sanitizers are a good option. Alcohol-based sanitizers can destroy many of the germs that make you sick -- if you use them correctly.

DO look for sanitizers that are at least 60% alcohol. Research shows these sanitizers work better than those with lower amounts of alcohol.

DON’T use sanitizer on dirty or greasy hands. The sanitizer won’t be as effective.

DO apply enough sanitizer. Cover the fronts and backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your fingernails. Check the label; most brands recommend an amount that’s about the size of a quarter.

DO rub your hands until they’re dry. Put the sanitizer in the palm of one hand. Then rub for about 20 seconds, or until your hands are dry.

DON’T wipe, rinse, or wave your hands. Wiping or rinsing off the sanitizer can make it less effective. Waving your hands exposes them to any germs in the air.

DON’T leave sanitizers in the reach of children. A few swallows can lead to alcohol poisoning.

DO still wash with soap and water. Sanitizers don’t remove all kinds of harmful germs, so you should scrub up as soon as you can.

Hygiene at Home

You share many things with your family, but sickness doesn’t have to be one of them. To prevent the spread of germs, step up your cleaning routine. Viruses, such as the flu, can live for up to 2 days on surfaces, so it’s important to disinfect regularly. These steps can help keep your household healthy:

  1. Use the right products. Look for cleaners that destroy cold and flu viruses. Or make your own by mixing 1/3 cup bleach with a gallon of water.
  2. Clean and sanitize. Wash surfaces with soap and warm water. Then use your disinfecting cleaner as directed. Or wipe with a bleach solution and let air-dry.
  3. Disinfect high-touch areas often. These include door handles, light switches, faucets, and toilets.
  4. Wipe down phones, remote controls, tablets, and keyboards. These electronics are often teeming with germs. Check with the manufacturer on how clean them. Or use an alcohol wipe or 70% alcohol spray and dry completely.
  5. Assign toiletries. Make sure everyone uses their own towel, razor, cup, and toothbrush.

Protect Yourself

This cold and flu season, as many as one in every 11 people will come down with the flu. That often means several days of feeling miserable with fever, chills, aches, and more. Your family’s best defense against influenza viruses? Getting a flu shot every year.

Although they’re not foolproof, flu vaccines still help protect you from catching the flu. Research shows that, in healthy people, they can lower your odds by 40% to 60%. And if you do get sick, an immunization makes your symptoms less serious. It also reduces your risk of complications, such as pneumonia.

Can the flu vaccine make you sick?

It can’t give you the flu. Flu vaccines are made with dead, weakened, or incomplete strains of the virus. This causes your body’s immune system to respond, but it can’t make you sick.

If you develop flu-like symptoms, it may be caused by:

  • Side effects to the vaccine: It causes your body to make protective antibodies. Some people may have nausea, headache, fever, or soreness. These symptoms are mild and go away on their own in a few days.
  • Different strains of the flu: Some of the time, the flu viruses used in the vaccine are different from the types going around.
  • Flu exposure: It takes about 2 weeks for the vaccine to take full effect. You can catch the flu during that window.

Who should get a flu vaccine?

Everyone over the age of 6 months should get a flu vaccine every year. It’s important for people who are at a higher risk for flu-related complications, including:

  • Adults age 65 and older
  • Pregnant women
  • Young children
  • Those with certain chronic conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease

The exception is if you have a life-threatening allergy to the flu vaccine or any of its ingredients, such as gelatin or antibiotics. You should also talk to your doctor first if you have:

  • An allergy to eggs or any of the vaccine ingredients: If you have a mild allergy, you may be able to get the flu vaccine without any precautions. Those with more serious allergies may need to be monitored by a doctor.
  • Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) or you’ve had GBS in the past: Some people with a history of GBS shouldn’t get vaccinated.
  • A cold or aren’t feeling well: If you have a fever, you may need to wait until it breaks.

When should you get the vaccine?

Flu vaccines are made by private companies. They’re usually made available sometime in August.

Experts recommend getting your vaccine in September or October. The vaccine loses its power over time, so you don’t want to get it too early. But it also takes 2 weeks to fully kick in, so you want to get yours before flu season is in full swing.

But it’s not too late if you miss that window. Flu season can last until May, so getting a shot in January or even later can still protect you.

You can get your flu vaccine as a shot or a nasal spray. The nasal spray is approved for people ages 2 to 49. Talk to your doctor about the spray. It’s not recommended for certain people, such as pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems.

Break a Sweat 

Exercise doesn’t just strengthen your muscles. It also improves your immune system, so you can fight off cold and flu viruses.

Physical activity raises your production of the white blood cells that attack germs. It also ramps up blood flow throughout the body. The result: more immune cells circulate through the body faster, so they’re better able to kill bacteria and viruses.

After exercise, your immune system returns to normal within a few hours. But research shows that regular exercise can have long-lasting benefits: One study found that people who exercised for at least 20 minutes, 5 or more days a week, had 43% fewer sick days than their idle peers.

What’s more, moving can help you blow off stress, sleep more soundly, and lower inflammation in the body. These benefits have been shown to improve the immune response.

The best kind of exercise.

For the best defense, aim to get moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise most days of the week. That means pushing yourself enough to break a sweat and to make your breath quicken, for example taking a brisk walk, bike ride, or jog.

There’s no magic amount of physical activity, but experts recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week (about 20 minutes a day) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity.

But you can get too much of a good thing: Research shows that more than 90 minutes of high-intensity exercise, like a long run, can raise your risk of getting sick for 3 days. Intense activity may raise your levels of stress hormones, which can suppress the immune system.

Why you should take it outside.

A fun way to get the family involved? Go for a hike, bike, or walk in the great outdoors. Exercising outside can add even more protection.

  • You’ll get more of the sunshine vitamin. Sunlight is a top source of vitamin D, a nutrient that helps your immune system fight off viruses and bacteria.
  • It’ll perk up your mood. Spending time outside has been shown to ease stress, increase relaxation, and fend off depression.
  • You’ll breathe in fresh air. Many plants give off compounds called phytoncides, which may improve immune function.

Get Enough Sleep

When you’re a busy parent, sleep is often in short supply. But it’s crucial for staying healthy.

During slumber, your immune system is still at work. It makes cytokines, proteins that target infections. Without enough shut-eye, your body makes fewer cytokines and other key immune cells. Sleep deprivation also lowers the number and function of T cells, which destroy viruses.

How much sleep do you need? Adults should average 7 to 9 hours a night. According to one study, people who logged less than 7 hours a night were three times more likely to catch a cold than those who slept more than 8 hours. Good-quality rest is also important: Those who spent more time awake in bed -- tossing and turning, for example -- were nearly six times more likely to get sick.

Keep Your Stress In Check

Over time, stress can wear down your immune system. This can raise your odds of catching a cold, and make it harder to fight one off.

When you’re under pressure, your body makes more of a hormone called cortisol. It dampens your immune system and inflammation, so you can have more energy to react. But if you have chronic stress, your body doesn’t react to cortisol by as much. This leads to more inflammation, which can cause cold symptoms.

Having chronic stress for 1 to 6 months doubles your chance of catching a cold, while being stressed for 2 years or more raises it fourfold.