It’s weird for me to even write this, but it has been nearly 3 years since I’ve had any illness.
Seriously, not even a cold.
Like most people, I used to get a cold once or twice a year. And every few years I would get a nasty flu that would keep me in bed for days.
That’s just life, I assumed.
Or is it?
Since I’ve been taking better care of myself I really haven’t gotten sick at all. While I would love to attribute this streak of robust health to my vegetable-filled diet and subsequently invincible immune system, there are likely other factors that play important roles in keeping me healthy.
Some of these tips I picked up by seeing first-hand in the lab how easily germs are transmitted and propagated. Others I learned by trial and error. But over the years I’ve seen much of this advice confirmed by scientific data.
These are my top 10 tips (in order) that I attribute to helping me avoid and conquer illness.
Top 10 Tips To Prevent Cold and Flu
- Wash your hands. You get sick for one reason and one reason only: germs. Bacteria and viruses make you ill by finding a way into your body through physical contact. Don’t let them get you. Since most of your contact with the world happens through your hands, washing them can stop germs from making the leap from contaminated surfaces to inside your body. Bacteria especially grow and proliferate very easily, so simply touching a lot of different things can spread them all over the stuff you work with daily. Hand washing is especially important after riding public transportation, moving from one environment to another and before eating or preparing food. This review study on hygiene and illness agrees.
- Don’t touch your face. Even if your hands are relatively clean, chances are some germs will find a way to survive there. But these parasites will only compromise your health if they can get into your body. The easiest place to transmit illness is through mucous membranes such as your eyes, mouth and nose. Keep your hands away from your face (and food) and make it difficult for germs to find you.
- Avoid sick people. Germs are everywhere, but they are particularly concentrated in people who are sick. Keep these people away from you and disinfect everything they touch. Be particularly careful around anyone who regularly works with children, like teachers and pediatricians. Sorry guys, you’re contagious!
- Don’t eat group food. In flu season, I completely avoid large party dips that involve dipping directly into the bowl rather than scooping with a clean spoon onto individual plates. Why? People may use the hand they just sneezed in to turn a chip around a few times until they find the perfect dipping angle. That means they are adding their nasty germs directly into the salsa. Yuck.
- Get enough sleep. Although I haven’t actually gotten sick, there have been times when I felt as though I might come down with something (this last weekend for instance). One of the best ways I found to avoid getting seriously sick is to get extra sleep for a few days. Recently this recommendation was backed up by some hard science on sleep and illness.
- Don’t drink alcohol. Another way to avoid coming down with something serious if you are starting to get sick is to skip on drinking for a few days. According to one study drinking large amounts affects your immune system, making it weaker for 24 hours.
- Hydrate. When your body is fighting an illness your immune system is working overtime. Make sure it has everything it needs to function at its best, including plenty of water.
- Skip a workout. If you feel like you might be getting sick but aren’t sure, don’t go to the gym. Your body needs all its extra resources to fend off whatever virus or bacteria you’ve been exposed to, so save all the energy you’ve got.
- Eat well. You may be disinclined to eat if you aren’t feeling well, but be sure that whatever you do manage to get down is nutritious and healthy. It’s not a good idea to eat foods that induce inflammation (simple sugars and starches) when your body is already weakened. Green juice is a great way to get extra nutrition.
- Take your vitamins. One of the most consistent things I’ve noticed that correlates with my health is how often I take my multivitamin and vitamin D. I take a food-based multivitamin from Megafood. Many people are vitamin D deficient, so it is worth getting your levels checked even if you live in a sunny area. To keep mine in a healthy range I take 2,000-4,000 IU vitamin D3 (Carlson), depending on the season.
Since someone will probably ask, no I do not get flu shots. I have nothing against them, but as you can imagine a painful injection to prevent illnesses I don’t get is not a huge priority for me. I may regret this someday.
Also, I do not take echinacea. Every rigorous analysis I’ve seen says it doesn’t work, and it has never been effective for me. Take it if you like, but probably any benefit you get is due to the placebo effect.
Originally published Sept 28, 2009. Full disclosure, since writing this I had a brief spell of pneumonia in the summer of 2010 that I seemed to catch from my boyfriend (now husband). It was apparently a very virulent strain, since pneumonia is not typically contagious. I’ve not been sick since.