It's October, and the chill in the air is both exhilarating and ominous. There are so many things I love about colder weather: boots, warm drinks, cozy blankets, and pumpkin-flavored everything. But falling temperatures are also a harbinger of cold and flu season, which is never something to look forward to.
I hate being sick, but I have never passed a year without catching some sort of virus or bacterial infection. Some years are better than others, of course, but I always spend at least a few days curled up with a box of tissues and a killer headache. This fall, I've decided to do my best to avoid the cold-weather curse and stay healthy all season long.
As I laid out my strategy, I found a lot of conflicting information. I realized it would be helpful to understand exactly what a cold is and how it spreads so that I could focus my attention on the most effective prevention techniques. This article from How Stuff Works explains that a virus enters your system and causes inflammation and mucus production as your immune system kicks in to banish it from your body. It's not actually the virus that causes your stuffy nose and sore throat - it's your own body!
Another important thing to note is that chilly temperatures don't cause colds and flu - at least not directly. Cold weather means that people are more likely to be cooped up inside together for long periods of time, which results in a lot more opportunities for germs and viruses to be transmitted from person to person. An easy way to avoid sickness is to keep your hands clean and avoid touching your face. And when you have the opportunity, clean surfaces that you touch a lot, like phones, door handles, and computer keyboards.
Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to avoid exposure to illness-causing viruses altogether, so in order to avoid getting sick, you've got to make your body a hostile place where they can't survive or thrive. Because you already have everything you need to fight a virus once it makes its way into your body, the best way to get over a sickness is to shore up your defenses as much as possible. This is also a great way to avoid feeling ill in the first place: if your immune system is strong enough, it will defeat the virus before your symptoms get too intense. Luckily, there are some very simple things you can do to stop a cold at the earliest opportunity.
Sleep is what restores your body. Every day, you use up parts of yourself in order to interact with the world, and each night, your body can replenish those things because it is in a restful state that doesn't require a lot to keep going. By getting plenty of rest, you are giving your immune system the time it needs to prepare a defense against the germs you'll encounter over the course of the day. Shoot for 7-9 hours of sleep each night, but never get less than 6 hours if you can help it.
Every single part of your body - down to the last cell - contains water and needs it to survive. When you are dehydrated, your body isn't functioning optimally, and you're more likely to feel tired, get a headache, and catch a cold. Keep things running smoothly by drinking as much water as possible. There's a lot of mixed information out there about how much water you should be drinking, but a good rule of thumb is that you should drink half your body weight in ounces of water (for example, a 140-pound woman should drink about 70 ounces of water every day). Read this for suggestions about how to drink more water.
Exercise is a great way to strengthen both your muscles and your immune system. Studies have shown that people who exercise are less likely to get sick, possibly because aerobic exercise boosts circulation of sickness-fighting white blood cells, or because endorphins help your immune system to function more effectively. Aim to do about 20 minutes of cardio five days a week, which should keep your body in great shape and help fight sickness.
Vitamin C gets a lot of attention as the best way to prevent and cure colds, but research indicates that protein plays an important role in your immune system. Keep yourself healthy by consuming enough healthy protein each day. Ask your doctor for specific recommendations, but generally you should be getting between 45-55 grams every day, depending on your gender and lifestyle.
Since infections are most often spread via your hands, the best way to prevent sickness is to keep your hands as clean as possible. Wash your hands frequently - especially before eating or drinking, or after touching a lot of public surfaces. Carry hand sanitizer with you for convenience, but remember that it's not a good substitute for soap and water. And as a bonus, clean your phone with disinfecting wipes as often as you think of it. You probably have it in your hands more than you think, and it's picking up the same germs that you are.
How do you stay healthy? Are there any unconventional methods you use to prevent sickness?