With cold and flu season on the horizon, you might be thinking of ways to keep yourself from getting sick. Flu shot, check. Multivitamin, check. Hand sanitizer, check. But actually, you may want to rethink that last one.
If you depend on hand sanitizer to combat the germs that cause colds and the flu, you might be more vulnerable to infection than you think.
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A September 2019 study published in mSphere found that the influenza A virus remains active for a full two minutes after exposure to an ethanol-based disinfectant. Yikes. And there's more: Researchers noted that alcohol-based hand sanitizer takes up to four minutes to kill the flu virus, nearly 12 times longer than the 20 seconds of hand-rubbing prescribed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But it's not all bad news. The flu shot is an effective first line of defense that prevents million of cases of influenza each year. And practicing tried-and-true healthy habits, like getting enough sleep and washing your hands frequently (more on that later), can help stop these illnesses in their tracks.
Ticked off all those boxes? There are a few other preventative measures you can take. Here, Robert Segal, MD, founder of Medical Offices of Manhattan, offers some not-so-run-of-the-mill tips to keep those maddening microbes at bay.
1. Sip Some Tea
A warm cup of tea may provide relief when you have a sore throat, but it may also help prevent you from getting sick too. "In order to stay healthy, it's important to stay hydrated. One way to do that is to drink tea," says Dr. Segal.
But not all teas are created equal. Dr. Segal recommends sipping on green, black or white tea, since they contain powerful antioxidants that can help your body eliminate bacteria that cause colds or the flu.
For a little extra protection, drizzle some honey into your tea. Research has shown that honey has the power to kill bacteria.
2. Pack in Protein
Think of food as preventative medicine. A wholesome, balanced diet will provide the nutrients your body needs to help ward off pesky pathogens. So, when you feel something coming on, eating healthy is even more essential, says Dr. Segal.
In addition to vitamin-rich fruits and veggies, high-protein foods like lean meat, eggs and beans can aid in boosting your immune system too. Why? According to Dr. Segal, protein is key to fighting off infections because it helps your body build antibodies. And when you're getting sick, you need as many little soldiers as possible to stop intruders from harming your body.
3. Get a Massage
A rubdown can reduce your odds of catching a cold? Sure can. The most pleasant of the flu-fighting strategies, getting a massage may help boost your immune system and, in turn, help you avoid the flu, says Dr. Segal.
It also relaxes you, and when you're less stressed, you're less likely to get sick. In fact, chronic stress impairs your body's inflammatory response and can make you more susceptible to colds, according to research published in the April 2012 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
One word of caution: If you're already sick, a massage might not be the best thing, because it increases circulation and can spread metabolic waste throughout your system, says Dr. Segal.
Sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice through as you wash your hands, to make sure you're cleansing them thoroughly.
4. Stock Up on Garlic and Ginger
Before the first hint of sniffles, start seasoning every meal with garlic. That's right, garlic is a natural germ-fighter, says Dr. Segal. As a matter of fact, a June 2012 study published in Clinical Nutrition found that aged garlic extract may boost immune cell function and, consequently, help reduce the severity of colds and flu.
More recently, a review published in the October 2020 issue of Trends in Food Science & Technology) found that garlic has "anti-viral and immune boosting properties" and that "dietary intake of garlic and garlic products is suggested to prevent viral infections as a prophylactic intervention." Not a fan of the raw stuff? No worries. Dr. Segal says you can also take a garlic supplement for the same benefits.
Ginger is another immune-enhancing food to add to your shopping list. "Fresh ginger has natural anti-inflammatory properties that can help treat early cold symptoms," says Dr. Segal. Plus, it can kill rhinoviruses, which cause common colds, according to the 2013 book, Food as Medicine.
A study published in the January 2013 Journal of Ethnopharmacology also determined that fresh ginger "has anti-viral activity against human respiratory syncytial virus" (RSV).
Read more: 14 Inflammation-Fighting Foods to Eat Every Day
During cold and flu season, public places and shared spaces are swarming with germs. And infection can spread like wildfire. Case in point: your office. A January 2013 study by researchers at the University of Arizona found that 50 percent of commonly touched surfaces in an office environment — like doorknobs, phones and coffee pots — became infected with a virus after only four hours when an employee came to work sick.
So how can you protect yourself from infection when your office is crawling with creepy critters? Wiping down surfaces with disinfectant can reduce your likelihood of contact, says Dr. Segal. According to the same University of Arizona study, cleaning germy hotpots daily can reduce your chance of contracting viruses by a whopping 80 percent.
Since you can't sanitize every surface, do your best to avoid touching them directly. Use tissues to hold onto subway poles or when opening and closing doors at a public restroom.
But if you're out of Kleenex and must make contact with a germy surface, don't touch your face until you can properly wash your hands. And here's a pro tip: Dr. Segal recommends singing the "Happy Birthday" song twice through as you soap up, to make sure you're cleansing your hands thoroughly.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Wash Your Hands”
- The University of Arizona: “Germs Spread Fast at Work, Study Finds”
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Is Rinsing Your Sinuses With Neti Pots Safe?”
- The New England Journal of Medicine: “A Sneeze”
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk.”
- Clinical Nutrition: “Supplementation with aged garlic extract improves both NK and γδ-T cell function and reduces the severity of cold and flu symptoms: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled nutrition intervention”
- Food as Medicine: “Ginger: A Functional Herb”
- mSphere: “Situations Leading to Reduced Effectiveness of Current Hand Hygiene against Infectious Mucus from Inﬂuenza Virus Infected Patients”
- Journal of Ethnopharmacology: "Fresh Ginger (Zingiber Officinale) Has Anti-Viral Activity Against Human Respiratory Syncytial Virus in Human Respiratory Tract Cell Lines"
- Trends in Food Science & Technology: "Antiviral Potential of Garlic (Allium Sativum) and Its Organosulfur Compounds"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.