This isn’t just the start of holiday season; it’s germ season as well. That’s why many of us will be hacking away and looking a lot like Rudolph before winter is over. “The average adult gets one to three respiratory illnesses each year, and women, especially if they’re moms, tend to catch even more,” says Charles Gerba, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona and coauthor of The Germ Freak’s Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu.
So how can you avoid getting sick? You already know you need to eat right, exercise and get enough sleep. And yes, you should get a flu shot now, even if you received one last year (visit FluClinicLocator.org to find out where you can get the vaccine near you). But don’t stop there. Here are five surprising ways to help stay healthy and keep you and your family sniffle-free all season long:
1. Fill up on fiber.
It not only helps you feel full and lose weight, it also boosts your immune system. New research from the University of Illinois shows that fiber, which is abundant in fresh fruits and veggies, stimulates the activity of our white blood cells, which battle infection and help you stay healthy. And don’t forget to add garlic to your dishes. It contains allicin, a potent germ-fighter. Cook it to release the most benefits, and try to eat some at least three times each week.
2. Get your dose of D.
During winter months, it’s hard for your body to make enough vitamin D from sun exposure, and few foods contain a good amount. But vitamin D is the key to a strong immune system. According to recent research published in the journal Epidemiology and Infection, people downing 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily came down with 70 percent fewer colds and flu than those taking a placebo. Other research shows that getting enough vitamin D may lead to less cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other serious diseases.
3. Avoid the worst germ hot-spots.
- Elevator buttons. Push them with your keys, a credit card or a gloved finger. Ditto for ATM screens.
- The office fridge, microwave and water fountain. Use a paper towel to open them and turn them on.
- Your co-worker’s candy bowl. If other people have been dipping in, there’s more than M&M’S in there.
- The handle of your supermarket cart. Carry sanitizing wipes with you to disinfect it before shopping.
- Public restrooms. After washing your hands, turn off all faucets with paper towels and be sure to open the exit door with one (it’s the germiest spot of all).
4. Choose the right cleaning products.
Using the wrong ones could end up simply pushing the germs around instead of killing them. Unfortunately, most green products won’t do the job. Only the sprays, liquids and wipes labeled “disinfecting” or “sanitizing” will kill germs, including the cold and flu viruses. Look for an Environmental Protection Agency number, which ensures the product has been tested for effectiveness, and follow product instructions exactly.
5. Wash, wash and wash some more.
You know you should wash your hands before you eat to stay healthy. But Gerba advises also scrubbing up as soon as you enter your home or workplace to wash away all the germs you picked up getting there. Rub the top and bottoms of your hands under water (it doesn’t matter if it’s hot or cold) for as long as it would take you to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Soap won’t actually kill germs, but it helps them slide off your hands. Nowhere to wash? Use a hand-sanitizing gel with at least 60 percent alcohol, which protects against the flu by destroying the outer layer of the virus.
Nancy Kalish is a certified health coach, and an editor and writer with more than 20 years of experience. She has covered health, nutrition and oral health for Prevention, Health, SELF, Real Simple, The New York Times.