You knew it was coming: Flu season's back, and there's no telling how mild or wild it will be (remember swine flu?). "The severity of each season is unpredictable," confirms Karen K. Wong, MD, an epidemic intelligence service officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Same goes for ye olde common cold, which also strikes this time of year. But thanks to scientists who are constantly working to learn the best ways to fight germs and build a better flu shot, it's gotten easier than ever to protect yourself. Follow their advice, and this could be the year you don't get sick.
Get A Flu Shot (Pronto!)
Flu season runs from October to May, so if you haven't gotten jabbed, now's the time. "The vaccine takes anywhere from two to four weeks to take effect, and it lasts for at least six months, so if you get it now, you'll be primed for the flu's peak in January or February," says Andrew Pekosz, PhD, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The CDC recommends that everyone six months and older get it. About 200,000 people are hospitalized with flu-related complications each year, and thousands die. In fact, as many as 18,000 people in the U.S. are estimated to have lost their lives to the H1N1 epidemic of 2009.
Women may be more likely than men to end up in the hospital with severe flu symptoms, notes Sabra Klein, PhD, an assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University who researches sex differences in infectious disease. That's because our bodies mount higher immune responses to germs.
A quick refresher on how the shot works: Every year, CDC scientists figure out which strains of influenza are most likely to run rampant based on data from the previous flu season, then put dead forms of those strains into the vaccine. When you get the shot, your immune system produces targeted antibodies to beat those specific viruses -- that way you'll be pre-equipped to fight off the live germs if you come in contact with them in the real world.
The vaccine is at least 60 percent effective -- no, not 100 percent, but "even if you do get the flu after being vaccinated, your symptoms will likely be less severe because of the partial immunity you've built up," says Cornelia Dekker, MD, a professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Stanford Medical School. You might have a sore arm or redness after getting the shot, but that's your immune system's response to the vaccine; you can't actually get the flu from the vaccine. (Note: The shot can cause a reaction in people allergic to eggs, so if that's you, talk to your doc before getting it.) To avoid soreness altogether, ask for FluMist, the needle-free nasal spray vaccine (unless you're pregnant, over 50, or have a chronic condition like asthma -- the spray isn't yet approved for those folks).
Stay Away From Sickies
The flu gets passed around primarily when infected people sneeze, cough or just talk, sending tiny, virus-filled water droplets out of their mouths and noses and into yours, from as far as six to ten feet away. So if a co-worker shows up complaining about aches and pains, or you notice someone wheezing next to you on the bus or in line at Target, you should stay at least 10 feet away, if possible -- "15 feet if the person's really sick," says Philip Tierno, PhD, director of clinical microbiology and immunology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. Switch seats on public transportation or at the movies if you have to! (And if you're that coughing, sneezing person -- stay the heck home, for the sake of those around you.)
Although you probably won't get influenza from pressing an elevator button or using a keyboard that a sick person has handled, you could catch a cold, since that virus is mainly passed around by touch. So it's smart to clean shared telephones and laptops with a disinfecting wipe. Also, like Mom said, wash your hands! Soap up or use an alcohol-based sanitizer, especially before you eat or touch your eyes, nose or face, and after you've been in the bathroom.
If you've got a sick child or spouse at home, you can't exactly banish 'em to the backyard. Just wash your hands more than usual and avoid kissing and sharing drinks or utensils with family members; they can shed live viruses for five days after symptoms are gone.
Sleep In This Weekend
You always hear that rest is important when you're under the weather, but research shows that it really could make the difference between who gets sick and who doesn't. In a study from Carnegie Mellon University, people who got eight or more hours of sleep were less likely to come down with a cold than those who'd snoozed for fewer than seven hours, even when a live virus was placed directly in their nose. (Suddenly, staying up late to catch up on "Downton Abbey" doesn't sound quite as tempting.)
Even if you don't have time for a nap, doing some meditation could really help to ward off colds and flu: In a new study from the University of Wisconsin, people who took an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation were about 30 percent less likely to get sick than non-ommers. No need to take a class; simply sit still and focus on your inhales and exhales for several minutes every day.
Eat To Boost Your Immunity
What you put in your mouth can make a huge difference in how well your body fights off cold and flu germs. Step one: Cut back on fatty foods and eat more of the stuff that boosts your immune response, like fruit and vegetables, experts advise. Federal guidelines recommend that we get five to nine servings of fruit and veggies a day. At the very least, have one at every meal or snack -- "especially orange, yellow-orange and deep green produce, which are highest in the symptom-beating antioxidants you need now: vitamin C, E and beta-carotene," says Melina Jampolis, MD, a Los Angeles internist and author of The Calendar Diet.
Vitamin D is another nutrient to amp up on: One recent Spanish study found that being deficient may leave us particularly vulnerable to colds and flu. Because it's tough to get enough from sunlight (which triggers the body to create it) or food, "I put my patients on 1,000 IU a day," Dr. Jampolis says.
Most important, eat a well-balanced diet that's not lacking in any nutrient, including calories. "Flu season -- or any season! -- is no time to go on a crash diet," Dr. Jampolis says. "Severely limiting calories can decrease your body's defenses." Pass the sweet potatoes!
Want more on the best foods for a cold? Check out these suggestions from Ilyse Schapiro, R.D., C.D.N.
Yes, Mom, I'm drinking plenty of fluids. While there <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/health/11really.html" target="_hplink">hasn't been any rigorous scientific research</a> into the legitimacy of this cold cure, staying hydrated is important. A little extra H20 can also help thin mucus, possibly easing some of that congestion, says Schapiro, and "help to flush everything out." Lovely. Plain water may be the best, but tea is another good option, she says. Warm liquid can soothe a sore throat and further ease congestion, and tea is also rich in infection-fighting antioxidants, she adds. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/bradmontgomery/4186827426/" target="_hplink">brad montgomery</a></em>
Skip The Juice
One of my co-workers suggested not just any liquid, but juice in particular. I know orange juice has a healthy reputation for all that immunity-boosting vitamin C, but juice also gets a bad rap for containing a heck of a lot of calories and not a lot of bulk. Schapiro agrees. "You don't want beverages with added sugars," she says. "Extra sugar <a href="http://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/10-immune-system-busters-boosters" target="_hplink">hinders white blood cells</a> from fighting infection." If you're looking for that dose of C, go straight to the unprocessed source. Have an orange or a grapefruit, or squeeze some lemon into your tea -- the fruit has more fiber, so it'll be more filling, and you'll only get the natural sugars, not the added ones in juice, says Schapiro. You can even find vitamin C in some surprising places, like kale and red bell peppers, she adds, if you're not in the mood for citrus. However, before you run out for a week's worth of grapefruit, keep in mind that the jury is still out on vitamin C's real cold-busting benefit. A 2007 study that followed more than 11,000 people over several decades found that <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/07/070718002136.htm" target="_hplink">the average person isn't benefitted all that much by a daily dose of vitamin C</a>. Turns out, it's much more helpful to bodies under extreme physical stress, like marathon runners. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/tasselflower/5563590861/" target="_hplink">tasselflower</a></em>
By day three of my cold, I'd had soup for more meals than not. It's easy to sip on when you're not so hungry (a cold-induced phenomenon I am not usually plagued by), and it's comforting, but does it really help? While the warmth could break up some congestion, there does seem to be something about soup -- and chicken soup in particular -- that works to fight against infections. "It's anti-inflammatory," says Schapiro, a finding supported by a 2000 study that examined the <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11035691" target="_hplink">components of chicken soup</a> individually, as well as the contents of the bowl as a whole. The researchers found you might feel even better if you can convince someone to make it for you. If only. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/29233640@N07/3292261940/" target="_hplink">Robert Couse-Baker</a> </em>
Pick A Protein
I had to essentially force-feed myself the soup, but Schapiro says it's important to still get some protein "even when you don't feel like eating anything." Fish, chicken and turkey can help the organs that make your cold-destroying white blood cells, she says. Just stay away from fatty things, like a juicy steak or anything fried, since these foods are harder to digest and may suppress your immune system, she says. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/bensonk42/4947364945/" target="_hplink">bensonk42</a></em>
Another co-worker offered the following cure: Steep some fresh ginger in boiling water until the water turns yellow, then drink it like tea with some honey. At the time, I couldn't bring myself to walk down and then back up the four flights of stairs to my apartment just for some knobby ginger, but turns out she was onto something. The root has anti-inflammatory properties, says Schapiro, and you can get a "two-for-one" by cooking up a ginger-flavored chicken dish, she suggests. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/7155714264/" target="_hplink">stevendepolo</a></em>
Season With Garlic
"Eat garlic!" my boyfriend texted me, when I whined about my symptoms. "It's supposed to kill bacteria if you catch it early enough." My first reaction, as a health editor, was to wonder how he came by such wisdom, but turns out he's right (swoon). Regular garlic eaters seem to fight off colds, possibly because of the compound <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/20/health/20real.html " target="_hplink">allicin's ability to block infections</a>, the <em>New York Times</em> reported. "I would cook with it," says Schapiro. "Put it in the chicken soup, or with a chicken dish, or if you can tolerate it, cook vegetables like broccoli with it, for some extra antioxidants and vitamins."
Don't Drink Alcohol
I don't think anyone is going to throw a house party mid-cold, but maybe you're tempted to try a glass of wine to help you sleep. However, I have a hunch alcohol is what got me in trouble in the first place: a weekend of a little too intense exercise (a long run Saturday and a 90-minute soccer game on Sunday) washed down with a couple of beers instead of a couple of glasses (gallons?) of water. "There are properties of alcohol that decrease your immune system," says Schapiro, "it suppresses it, it doesn't let your body fight infection and it also dehydrates you." Guilty. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulaloe/148138443/" target="_hplink">paulaloe</a></em>
On The Fence: Dairy Products
It's tempting to drown those sniffly sorrows in the bottom of an ice cream sundae, but rumor has it that dairy might make things worse. For every study that says you should avoid dairy products when you have a cold, there's one that says you needn't bother, says Schapiro. "Some people say to avoid it because it increases mucus, but others say it doesn't necessarily," she says. "I say try it, and if it doesn't aggravate you, then go for it," since dairy products can be good sources of protein and vitamin D, which can both help fight infections, she says. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/savaughan/3210789112/" target="_hplink">SeRVe Photography</a></em>