It’s that time of year again – as the temperature outside drops, the cold and flu season begins.
How can you stay healthy when everyone around you is coughing and sneezing?
“You can catch a cold or the flu all year round, but it’s more likely to happen during autumn and winter,” says Dr Lisa Anderson at doctors’ online booking platform Doctify.
That’s possibly because we spend more time indoors, in close contact with each other. A study by Yale University School of Medicine also suggests that, as our body temperature falls after exposure to cold air, so does our immune system’s ability to fight off the rhinovirus, one of the viruses that causes the common cold.
The office is an ideal breeding ground for the highly contagious cold and flu viruses. They spread through the air from coughs and sneezes, and when we touch contaminated shared objects and surfaces like door handles, mice and keyboards.
So what can you do to stave off the sniffles? Shun everyone, wear a surgical mask and use tissues to open doors? These won’t help by much. There are better ways to protect yourself, although (and it must be said) there are no guarantees. You may get the cold anyway but, at least, you won’t annoy your co-workers.
Prevention is better than cure (in fact, there is no cure)
While there’s no vaccine to prevent the common cold, you can get a flu jab.
“This is the most effective protection you can take,” Dr Anderson says. “Studies have shown that the flu jab can reduce your chances of catching the flu by up to 50%.”
The NHS guidance says the best time to have the vaccination is in the autumn, from the beginning of October to the end of November, and that it then takes about two weeks to develop the necessary antibodies. Also, because flu strains mutate over time, you need to have a new jab every year.
If you fall into one of the risk categories (you are 65 or over, you have a serious medical condition or you are pregnant), you are eligible for a free flu vaccine on the NHS. Otherwise, the vaccine costs about £20.
Other than that, Dr Anderson says you should avoid touching your eyes or your mouth, which is how viruses get into your body. “Wash your hands more regularly, too,” she says. Most viruses which cause colds and flu only survive on hands for a few minutes to about an hour.
Dr Anderson adds: “If someone sneezes or coughs beside you, take a long breath out – this may keep you from inhaling the germs in the air around you. And drink lots of hot tea with lemon and honey. When you breathe in the steam you stimulate the cilia (the hair follicles in the nose) to push out the germs. Besides, lemon thins the mucus, and honey is antibacterial and antiviral.”
Boost your immunity, too
Dr Anderson recommends you get at least seven hours’ sleep every night and stay off the booze. “Prolonged periods of short nights can disrupt your immune system leaving you less able to fend off bugs. Alcohol affects your sleep quality and, as your body is busy trying to push it out of your blood, your body’s ability to promote normal cell recovery is diminished.”
Eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables each day, as well as enough protein (red meat and eggs, or other high-protein foods if you are vegetarian). “Low protein intake can deplete the immune system,” Dr Anderson says.
Exercising regularly can also boosts your immunity. However, Dr Anderson points out: “A gym is a paradise for germs, so always clean any equipment that you use with disinfectant wipes.”
Use those wipes at the office, too (even if you do get a few funny looks), to clean the surfaces or equipment that you share with others. Cold and flu viruses can survive on them for up to 24 hours.
But if you are feeling fluey…
…load up on vitamin C, zinc and selenium.
Dr Sarah Myhill, co-author of The Infection Game, says: “The need for vitamin C increases hugely with any infection, so take it at the first sign of the tingling, sore throat or runny nose. It greatly reduces any viral load in the gut, which ends up there when you cough up and swallow the sticky mucus.”
She recommends taking Vitamin C and zinc lozenges every hour, and a 100-mcgm capsule of selenium up to five times a day. “Vitamin C, zinc and selenium kill viruses, but they must come into direct contact with them in the mouth and ideally before they get further into the body.”
“You may also want to take one teaspoon of Elderberry syrup every hour and chew 800 mg of Berberine (goldenseal) three times a day,” Dr Myhill adds.
But what about something stronger? Antibiotics don’t work against viruses, and while taking paracetamol or ibuprofen will lower your temperature and ease aches and pains, they won’t cure you. Generally, you have to let a cold run its course. “You should rest and keep warm,” says Dr Myhill.
So, should you stay at home when ill?
Yes, in an ideal world, to avoid infecting others. Many of us, however, work through milder colds so we don’t fall behind with our workloads.
But you need to take a better care of yourself if you have the proper flu.
While the common cold and the flu share several symptoms (sore throat, headache, loss of taste and smell, muscle aches and pains, raised temperature), cold symptoms come on gradually, whereas the onset of flu is very sudden.
“Flu symptoms are also stronger and your temperature may reach 38˚C (100˚F) or above,” says Dr Anderson.
She adds: “The flu can make you feel exhausted and weak, so I’d recommend bedrest until your symptoms improve and the fever has subsided.”
Otherwise, you are at a higher risk of developing complications like bronchitis, pneumonia and even heart problems.
Iwona Tokc-Wilde is a business journalist.