Flu can strike at any time of year, but there’s a reason we often refer to winter as ‘cold and flu season’. Many still believe it’s cold temperatures that lead to infection, and there is some evidence this might be the case. However, studies have shown it’s mainly the fact that the cold tends to drive us indoors which makes winter a treacherous few months to navigate flu-free. More time spent indoors, in closer contact with other potentially infected people, increases our likelihood of contamination, and of becoming sick. There are steps we can take, though, to arm ourselves against the influenza virus, and increase the likelihood of a healthy, happy winter.
- Scrub up your hygiene game
Indoor activities, holiday parties and cuddling by the fire are all holiday favourites, but all carry a significant risk of passing the flu virus from person to person. This is no reason to avoid these pastimes, but every reason to take precautions to stop the spread of germs and viruses. Make sure you wash your hands well, using plenty of soap and warm water, after coughing, sneezing or visiting the toilet. Avoid coughing or sneezing in the proximity of other people, and avoid sneezing into your bare hands, as this spreads germs to whatever you touch afterwards. Always use a tissue, and dispose of the tissue as soon as possible when you’re done with it.
- Snuggle down and get some sleep
Sleep is an important factor in maintaining a healthy immune system. During uninterrupted periods of sleep, the body’s cells release proteins called cytokines, which help white blood cells fight infection. So as the nights grow darker, an earlier bedtime can definitely increase your chances of waking up bright, healthy and ready to take on the day.
- Get up and about
Make sure not to hibernate for the entire winter, though. As important as it is to get rest, it’s equally vital to get the blood pumping regularly. When the weather is bad, it’s often tempting to stay indoors, but as long as you wrap up warm, the benefits of taking a brisk winter walk, jog or cycle can be enormous. Medical evidence suggests it’s best to exercise gently and moderately to best support our body’s natural immune defences.
Exercise has also been proven to reduce stress levels. Our bodies naturally produce a hormone called cortisol, which helps to fight infection. When we’re stressed, it’s released in larger quantities, and too much of it can reduce its effectiveness. Working off some stress at the gym, out on a sports field or a relaxing walk can definitely boost our immune system.
- Steer clear of the booze
Though alcohol can play a big role in winter holiday cheer, it can also seriously dampen it by leaving us more open to infection. Consuming a lot of alcohol, particularly just before bedtime, can disrupt sleep patterns, and as we’ve established, plenty of sleep helps to maintain the body’s natural defences. So, avoiding alcohol, or drinking in moderation, can help save us the aches and pains of flu, as well as the inconvenience of a hangover.
- Pop the kettle on
Hot drinks are a winter pleasure, and they can also reduce the risk of colds and flu. Fruity teas are delicious, and those containing lemon are also a source of vitamin C, good for general health. Vitamin C is also thought to increase the production of white blood cells and therefore reduce the chance of infections. Green tea is also a great option, as it contains anti-oxidants, commonly regarded as good for overall health, as well as the amino acid L-theanine, which it’s believed may help your t-cells battle germs. What’s more, should you be unlucky enough to catch the flu, the steam from hot drinks can help to clear the airways and relieve some of the nasty symptoms.
- Get vaccinated
Lifestyle changes can go a long way towards preventing flu, but medical interventions are also available and in many cases a very important preventative measure. The CDC maintains that the flu vaccine is the best way to prevent contracting the flu, and it is particularly recommended for higher-risk groups such as pregnant women, the elderly, and infants. The vaccine prompts the body to create antibodies to fight the influenza virus. If you’re concerned you may be at high risk, it’s wise to think ahead and gather information about where and how you can get the vaccine in plenty of time for flu season. To enquire about your risk level and access to the vaccine, you can visit your GP, pharmacy, local healthcare clinic, or take advantage of a private GP service such as that offered by Highgate Hospital in London. Should you want or need expert medical advice from some of the best consultants in the country, without long waiting times, Highgate provides options for those with the means to go private.
- Consider anti-viral medication
Your healthcare professional might also provide you with advice on anti-viral medication for flu prevention. Whereas antibiotics treat bacterial infection and are not effective against the flu, anti-viral medications tackle the specific type of micro-organisms that cause influenza. If you’ve already contracted the flu, though anti-virals won’t cure it, they can shorten the length of the illness and reduce the symptoms. They can also reduce the risk of complications caused by the flu virus. Your doctor or medical practitioner will be able to determine if they’re right for you.
In England alone, in 2015-2016, the number of people visiting their doctor about flu-like illness rose above what the Royal College of General Practitioners considers the ‘pre-epidemic threshold’. As we move into 2017, it’s sound advice to keep our guard up against flu the whole year round. If we work towards developing a healthy lifestyle and keeping up-to-date with knowledge of the best sources of medical care and advice, come winter and ‘cold and flu season’, we should be equipped with our best defences.