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12/02/2015 07:18 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2016

9 Tips To Protect Against Colds And Flu

As you prepare for all the socializing that comes with the holidays don't forget to build up your defenses against cold and flu bugs.

One in five Americans will get the flu this winter, with some 200,000 sick enough to be hospitalized, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Since our immune system weakens with age, it's even more important for older adults to take preventive measures.

Here are nine easy-to-remember steps that will help protect you from colds and flu this winter -- just remember to commit to "F.E.W.E.R. F.L.U.S.".

1) Flu shot. This is step #1 in your plan. The good news is 70 percent of older adults do get a shot, but let's work on getting that figure closer to 100. The not-so-good news is that no flu vaccine is 100 percent effective (in a typical year it has a 40 percent efficacy rate). But don't let that statistic or any media reports stop you from getting immunized -- if you have reservations, talk to your physician. Studies find the vaccine will reduce your risk of flu-related hospitalization.
Rx: The earlier you get your flu shot the better since it takes about two weeks for the antibodies against the flu to develop.

While you should consider the flu shot the first line of defense it should be supplemented by other measures including:

2) Eat more fruits and vegetables. Your immune system is strengthened by the antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that come with eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Ironically, people often eat less fruit in the winter when the availability of local fresh products decreases.
Rx: Make extra effort to have fresh fruits and vegetables during the flu season and prepare a weekly batch of soup using lots of vegetables and you'll get the added benefit of warming up as the temperatures drop.

3) Walk. A study of more than 1,000 people of all ages found those who walked at least 20 minutes a day, five times a week, had 43 percent fewer sick days than others who exercised one day or less a week. The study also found that when the people who walked a moderate amount each week did get sick, their symptoms were milder and the cold or flu lasted for a shorter period.
Rx: Don't limit your walking routine to flu season; it will be more effective if you make this a year-round practice. Invest in warm clothing and comfortable boots to extend your walking season as it gets colder. Use every opportunity to walk and climb the stairs indoors. Find a walking partner!

4) E vitamin. This antioxidant vitamin has proven to be very effective in building up the immune system and in an HNRCA study we found that Vitamin E improves response to vaccine and reduces the risk of upper respiratory infections. You will find Vitamin E in wheat germ, nuts, leafy greens and olives and you might need to supplement yourself. Research also shows there are benefits to adding zinc to your anti-flu routine, which you can get in high-protein foods such as the dark meat of chicken or turkey, lamb and pork and cucumber skin. While Vitamin C is often cited as a panacea for colds and flus the science doesn't support the claim according to researchers who reviewed 30 clinical trials and determined while it doesn't prevent colds it may shorten the duration of illness.
Rx: It's difficult to get sufficient Vitamin E through diet alone, so consider supplementation to reach, combined from food and supplement, 200 IU of Vitamin E daily. Consult with your physician if you are taking other medications.

5) Reduce calories. Studies have shown that when people with excess weight reduce their calorie intake for six months their immune response is strengthened. Best results happen by cutting calories by 30 percent; but even a 10 percent reduction was shown to be beneficial.
Rx: This practice should only be used by people who have excess weight and then you need to be careful not to reduce in a way that creates nutritional deficiencies.

6) Fluids. Drink plenty of fluids, especially water, but also consider drinking green tea which contains antioxidants that will help reduce inflammation or get more adventurous and try turmeric tea.
Rx: Drink at least eight glasses of water or other non-sugary fluids daily -- soup also counts.

7) Lather up. Colds and flu germs often come from contaminated surfaces or from touching other people and can be killed by frequently washing your hands with warm water and soap. It's also wise to avoid rubbing your eyes and nose or covering your mouth with your hands.
Rx: When washing rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds to eliminate germs -- and don't forget to clean under your nails.

8) Understand your body. Most people know when they are getting rundown or taking on more stress than is good for the immune system. Watch for the signs and take action.
Rx: Reflect on your wellness regularly and take action on your own or with the assistance of a health care professional.

9) Sleep. Sleep is an important natural remedy to protect against colds and flu. A research team at the University of Washington has linked a brain-specific protein associated with sleep to the ability to fight off symptoms of the flu and published these findings last November in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. I know getting a good night's sleep isn't always easy for older adults so check out tips from the National Institute on Aging.
Rx: Older adults should get seven to eight hours of sleep each night to support a healthy immune system, according to research published in the October issue of the journal Sleep.

The time to protect yourself is now -- before the peak of the cold and flu season in January and February. Better yet, getting your immune system prepared is best done if you create a year-round routine that features the steps I've suggested for FEWER FLUS.

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