This year, the risk of the regular cold and flu season is exacerbated by Covid-19. This is the second in a series of two articles to help you manage your health this season. Our first article gave a more detailed background on the compounded risk we currently face, and shared tips on how to make your indoor environment work for your health. In this article, we explore some important strategies to boost your immunity and help protect your health as the fall turns to winter.
Did You Get Your Flu Shot?
There is a common myth that the flu vaccine causes the flu. This is incorrect. The flu vaccine contains an inactivated form of the virus, and thus cannot cause the flu. While there is currently no evidence to suggest that the influenza vaccine will protect you from a Covid-19 infection, studies consistently show that it reduces the risk of getting the flu, the severity of the infection, and the risk of hospitalization and death. Reducing the number of potential flu cases and their severity is crucial to help alleviate the burden on our healthcare systems as they continue to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to recommend annual influenza vaccinations for all persons aged 6 months or older. The flu vaccine is especially important for individuals who are at high risk for developing severe flu complications, including but not limited to adults 65 years or older, children younger than 2, people with suppressed immune systems, pregnant women, and anyone with chronic lung, heart, kidney or liver disease. Those who are able to get a flu vaccine will also be doing their part to protect vulnerable populations who are unable to receive the vaccination.
Since it takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop and provide protection against the influenza virus, it is recommended that you receive your vaccination in September or October, before the flu season begins. However, receiving the vaccination later is still more protective than not receiving the vaccination at all.
Safe Hygiene Practices Are Here to Stay
Fortunately, many of the same practices we are currently employing to protect ourselves against infection and transmission of Covid-19 also help to protect us against other respiratory infections such as the cold and flu. As we enter the fall and winter season, the CDC urges everyone to continue to:
Wear Face Coverings
Face coverings are a key tool in reducing the transmission of Covid-19 and can also help reduce the transmission of other respiratory viruses such as influenza. Continue to wear face coverings when you are in public spaces and/or if you cannot maintain a 6-foot distance from individuals who don’t live in your household.
Practice Social Distancing
Stay at least 6 feet apart from individuals who are not from your household – this is especially important when you are in public spaces. Avoid close contact with those who are sick. If someone in your household is sick, try to maintain a 6-foot distance (or as much distance as is possible) from them.
Wash Your Hands
Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Hand washing is especially important after you have been in public spaces and/or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water is not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
Cover Your Sneezes and/or Coughs
Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze or cough and throw the used tissue into the trash. If you don’t have a tissue, sneeze/cough into the inside of your elbow. Do not sneeze into your bare hands.
Boost Your Immune System
Our immune system is our best defense mechanism against germs, viruses, and chronic illnesses. Maintaining a healthy immune system is now more important than ever to help our bodies fight off colds, the flu, and other infections such as Covid-19. The best way to naturally strengthen your immune system is to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Here are some steps you can take:
Research consistently shows that chronic stress can negatively impact our immune system, thereby increasing our risk of infectious illnesses. Dealing with a pandemic is stressful enough, without the mounting fear of the upcoming cold/flu season. However, coping strategies such as meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, short walks outside, or tapping into your social network for support can help to minimize stress levels. For more details on how to manage your stress, check out these tips from Mayo Clinic and read our article on how to create a relaxing environment at home.
Get Adequate Sleep
As the pandemic continues, research has shown that an increasing number of people are suffering from sleep difficulties, with neurologists even coining the phrase “Covid-somnia.” Sleep plays a critical role in regulating our immune response. Not getting enough sleep can increase our body’s inflammatory response and even make us more susceptible to illnesses such as the common cold. Fortunately, there are many nonpharmacological approaches you can take to help you sleep better at night.
In our article, Sleep to Protect Immune Health & Performance, we explore the importance of sleep for our immune function and provide strategies to support quality sleep. In Create Your Sleep Sanctuary, we detail how to create a sleep-conducive environment in your home.
Maintaining a balanced diet is important for overall health and immune function. Malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies have been associated with poorer immune response, thereby increasing your risk of infections and chronic diseases. A good quality diet that consists of a wide variety of fresh and unprocessed foods can help ensure that you get the nutrients your body needs, thus helping to prevent deficiencies. Avoid foods high in sugar, fat, and salt.
Need help planning what to eat? The Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health has created the Healthy Eating Plate to help you create healthy, balanced meals. In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO) has released nutrition advice for adults during the Covid-19 outbreak, which provides detailed recommendations for a healthier diet.
Adequate hydration is crucial for maintaining a healthy immune system. Water is an essential building block of life which helps to regulate body temperature, keep joints lubricated, deliver nutrients to cells, and keep organs functioning properly. Drinking water is the recommended beverage to fulfill your daily water requirements as it is both calorie-free and cost effective. To ensure you’re well hydrated, try to drink small amounts frequently throughout the day. And while the majority of your daily fluid intake likely typically comes from drinks, consuming foods high in water content (such as celery, tomatoes, or melons) can also help keep you adequately hydrated.
Regular exercise helps to stimulate changes in different immune cell types that, together, have an anti-inflammatory effect and support immune defense activity. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends 150–300 minutes of moderate intensity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity per week for substantial health benefits.
While gyms in your area may still be closed, or reopening slowly, there are other ways to incorporate physical activity into your daily routine. Consider going for a socially distanced jog or walk outside, or take an online fitness class from the comfort of your home. Our previous article Immune Health: Fitness As You Work From Home provides detailed information on the importance of physical activity for your immune health, and offers additional tips on how to stay active during the pandemic.
Edited by Regina Vaicekonyte, MS and Radhika Singh