The signs are usually pretty clear, no matter how much we try to ignore them.
Excessive sneezing, tickle in your throat, runny nose, chills, feeling too warm, achy muscles, sore skin--they list goes on and on. Once we see the signs, it’s usually difficult to do anything to stop the impending illness.
This time of year is rough on everyone. It seems like everywhere you turn, someone you know is dropping off the radar to nurse themself back to health from another nasty cold or this year’s batch of influenza. We all hold our breath, hoping above all else that we aren’t about to be next. While it’s never a guarantee, there are steps we can take to try to keep illness at bay.
Here are 4 ways to stay healthy this cold and flu season.
You should wash your hands frequently during cold and flu season, but especially when you’re around food.
1. Wash your hands...and then wash them again, just to be safe.
Contagion is one of the most difficult things to manage when it comes to the cold and flu season. When someone’s immune system first starts fighting back against the flu or cold virus, this means that they are contagious. Both the flu and the common head cold typically begin to spread due to skin-to-skin contact, although that might be a little misleading.
Viruses spread when they come in contact with areas that have a direct line to your circulatory and respiratory systems. These areas most commonly include your mouth, ears, and eyes, and the easiest way for you to get sick is to touch one of these without having washed your hands first.
In order to prevent yourself from accidentally touching one of these when there is lots of illness surrounding you, we recommend you:
- Wash your hands before eating. Something we tend to forget about when it comes to the germs that might get us ill is that one of the simplest ways for them to attack our immune systems is by us willfully ingesting them in our food. To protect yourself from this mistake, be sure to wash your hands before and after handling any raw meat and fresh produce, as well as before you eat.
- Wash your hands after touching anyone (or anything). We come into contact with people and all of the contagions that come with them more often than we realize. How many hands do you shake a day? How many people have you brushed past in the hallway or on the street? Did you touch that handrail on the bus that at least one hundred other people touched before you?
- Wash your hands before leaving unfamiliar places. When you’re in a place don’t frequent often--or maybe you’ve never even been to before--you have no real way of knowing if someone there might already be sick. You also have no idea what they might’ve touched. Cold and flu are especially tricky to navigate in these situations because, oftentimes, contagion begins one day before symptoms start to appear. This means someone could be sick and not even know it yet to warn you. It’s best to wash your hands to be on the safe side during cold and flu season.
In the meantime, keep your hands away from your face!
2. Sometimes sharing isn’t caring.
From the moment we’re born, it’s usually drilled into our heads that “sharing is caring.” It’s how our parents first begin to teach us to play nice with other people and the rewards of being charitable when we are able. But the days of sharing the goldfish cracker snacks with our friends are long gone.
One of the quickest ways for illness to spread is from one mouth to another. Sharing snacks, drinks, and sometimes even entire meals during cold and flu season should be something you try to avoid at all costs.
We recommend the following during this season of perpetual illness:
- Stay away from the communal kitchen at work. The great thing about communal kitchens: free food that’s up for grabs to whoever gets there first. That’s right! Free. Food. The not-so-great thing about communal kitchens: Craig from accounting is always the first to stick his hand in the proverbial bowl of trail mix, and you know he said something about his kid’s daycare friend being out sick earlier this week. Ahem. Maybe it’s best to pack your own trail mix until this all blows over.
- Stop sharing drinks with your friends. Whether your coworker/best friend keeps snagging a sip of your coffee, your child continuously asks for “just one more sip” from your water bottle, or you’re out wine tasting on the weekend and there’s a sample that “you just have to try,” it’s probably best to avoid any and all of these for the time being. Even one sip can be enough to pass the virus from their mouth to yours.
- Don’t eat off the same plate as another person--and especially not the same fork. Plate sharing can be incredibly convenient. It saves you money, leftovers that will just sit in the fridge and rot when you inevitably forget about them, and food waste. But it might be best to skip out until the colduntil cold and flu season dies down. In the meantime, see if restaurants would be willing to give you a smaller portion of food or if they have any specials for two people dining. You might still be able to find ways to keep saving.
3. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep - and then some.
Have you ever noticed yourself feeling exponentially more exhausted when you’re sick? There’s a reason for that! Sleep is necessary for your overall health, but it’s especially necessary in the midst of cold and flu season because its primary function is to give your body the rest it needs to heal itself.
Sleeping does a couple different things to help the body fight against sickness. It suppresses your body’s need for all that energy it would have to expend while awake--which leaves extra room for things like healing. It also helps to regulate your immune system, and this can be especially effective during cold and flu season. Coupled with the extra energy your body has to put toward whatever is in need, a regulated immune system means that you can begin to build up your immunity enough to ward off any flu or cold invaders.
Here are a few of our tips for getting as much sleep as possible during cold and flu season:
- Give yourself a set bedtime. This seems kind of silly, especially when you’re a full-grown adult, but giving yourself a set bedtime gives you a way to hold yourself accountable to whatever time you set. In these busy, stressful lives we lead, it can be easy for us to fall into a pattern of putting sleep last on our to-do list, but if you want a fighting chance at staying healthy, giving yourself a bedtime is a great place to start.
- Set multiple alarms. Okay, this one might be a bit controversial. There are some people who find it impossible to fall back asleep after their first alarm. If that sounds like you, just ignore this bullet. However, the theory behind setting multiple alarms is that it gives your body an opportunity to let you know when it’s had enough sleep. If you wake up after the first alarm, and your body decides it needs another half hour, you can rest assured that you’re not about to oversleep.
- Turn off all of your devices half an hour before sleeping. Maybe not all the way off. The real issue with devices--and by devices we mean things with screens (that is, phones, laptops, kindles, and TVs)--is that they’re distracting. If you give them the opportunity, they will keep you up past that bedtime you set for yourself. Of course, some people use their phones as an alarm, so if that’s you, set it to “do not disturb” at that half hour mark, and it should still wake you up in the morning while staying dark through the night.
4. Address that you need to stress less.
Let’s face it: we live in the kind of world that makes us put a lot of pressure on ourselves. In the wake of project deadlines, bills to pay, relationships to maintain, and generally just trying to keep everyone else happy, it can be easy to fall into the habit of not taking care of yourself. And the underlying cause of all of this is stress.
The problem with stress--which most people tend to forget about--is that it has a tendency to weaken your immune system. And when your immune system is weak, it’s easy for the pathogens that cause flu and colds to invade your body.
To reduce your chances of getting sick, and especially during cold and flu season, here are a few tips to help you stress less:
- Try to lighten your load. Even if it’s just for a few weeks, be purposeful about giving yourself a little more downtime. When we’re under pressure, it’s easy to overexert ourselves, but that just increases your susceptibility to getting ill. Instead, when you find yourself with an overwhelming to-do list during cold and flu season, see what you can cut out. Is there something that can be put off until a later date? Or maybe try asking your supervisor an extension on a project so you can space out the energy you’re putting into your work.
- Start practicing mindfulness. For some people, mindfulness means meditation. There are a number of apps out there to help you get started if you’re not sure how to start. We’re well aware, however, that meditation doesn’t always work for everyone, so some other tricks you can try are engaging all of your senses on a routine stroll through the neighborhood and investing in some adult coloring books. Once you can get out of your own head for a little bit, you’ll be feeling more relaxed in no time!
- Invest in a weighted blanket. Weighted blankets are specifically designed to help you relax. They come in weights ranging from 5-30 lbs, although most adults usually opt for one between 15-30 lbs. Created to have the weight distributed in a way that targets all of the pressure points that relax you, weighted blankets are built to feel like a warm hug. You can find your own weighted blanket here.
Cold and flu season is a difficult time to navigate for all of us. Most of us are already stressed, but the realization that there’s some impending illness lurking around us can actually stress us out in a way that’s not good for our health. If you follow these guidelines, though--washing your hands, avoiding sharing, getting plenty of sleep, and stressing less--you should be on the right track to staying healthy in the midst of all that sickness.