This year’s cold and flu season comes at a time where we’re already preoccupied with our health, thanks to the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID numbers are starting to tick up as fall approaches, which has many of us reaching for our masks again and wondering just what we should be doing to keep ourselves safe and healthy this year. That’s especially true if you have or work with kids, because respiratory syncytial virus, aka RSV, is also a contagious respiratory illness to be aware of, and it’s known for being common among children. All of this might make it feel like picking up a cold or virus is all but inevitable this time of year, but there are definitely ways to decrease your risk of getting sick with the cold, flu, RSV, or COVID.
A lot of it will sound familiar — masking up, getting vaccinated, washing your hands, and employing your favorite immune-boosting strategies — but we know that between the multiple viruses and the many cold-busting strategies, it can feel like a lot to keep track of. That’s why we’re here to simplify things and remind you of a few key, easy things you can do to keep yourself and your family safe and healthy this year.
There are a few vaccines doctors are recommending this year. First up: the flu shot. If you haven’t gotten a flu vaccine yet, make an appointment to do so today (or check out local walk-in flu shot clinics, which can often be found at pharmacies). While the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective at preventing influenza, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains that it can reduce the risk of catching the flu by 40 to 60 percent.
“The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccine,” per the CDC’s flu season prevention guide. “CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone 6 months and older. Vaccination can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits, and missed work and school due to flu illness, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations.”
As for COVID? A new booster shot, set to be available soon, is expected to protect from severe health outcomes from the most common strains now going around. While the CDC hasn’t yet announced who the new shots will be recommended for, keep an eye out for news on the booster and make an appointment to get boosted as appropriate.
Finally, in more new vaccine news: an RSV vaccine is available this year for adults 60 years old and over, and a monoclonal antibody is available for infants and young children — all groups that are at higher risk for severe RSV. According to the CDC, both treatments are one dose only. (FYI: Both vaccines and monoclonal antibodies protect against infections, but in different ways. Vaccines provide “active immunity” to boost the body’s natural ability to fight an infection, while monoclonal antibodies provide “passive immunity,” meaning the antibody itself is providing protection rather than the immune system. )
Pop some vitamin D
Vitamin D is the vitamin that comes from sun exposure. No, really — it’s naturally found in very few foods, so humans manufacture it from ultraviolet rays. That being said, your vitamin D production naturally declines when it gets cold outside because, well, it’s cold, and you’re usually bundled up when outdoors.
Vitamin D has a ton of uses in the human body, including aiding calcium absorption and boosting your immune system. Gustavo Ferrer, MD, a pulmonologist and author of Cough Cures, tells SheKnows that vitamin D supplementation can also help prevent respiratory tract infections.
Wash your hands all the time
This may seem obvious, but not everybody washes their hands adequately. A quick rinse in water (and nothing else) is definitely not good enough.
“Handwashing is like a do-it-yourself vaccine — it involves simple and effective steps you can take to help stay healthy,” Dr. Ferrer explains.
The CDC says that you should always use clean running water (don’t dunk your hands into a sink full of water, in other words), lather with soap, and scrub your hands for at least 20 full seconds. Then, rinse well with clean running water. The soap itself doesn’t kill the germs — instead, it lifts the nasties from your skin so they can be rinsed down the drain. Finally, dry your hands with a clean towel.
Clean high-touch areas
“You should restock your pantry with cleaning supplies,” Kristin Dean, MD, a physician and associate medical director at Doctor On Demand, tells SheKnows. “Keeping your door handles, countertops and home clean and disinfected is just as important as washing your hands.”
The CDC recommends cleaning surfaces by scrubbing with water and soap, then sanitizing them with weak bleach solutions or sanitizing sprays. Finally, disinfect with chemicals or stronger bleach solutions in order to fully eradicate most germs.
Restock your medicine cabinet
You should also make sure your medicine cabinet is ready in case of illness. While over-the-counter medicine won’t treat viruses like the flu, COVID, or RSV, “you should have some staples to help at the first onset of symptoms,” Dr. Dean explains. “Tylenol, ibuprofen, cough drops, and decongestants are all good items to have on hand.”
Avoid communal snacks
During cold and flu season, it’s best to avoid sharing snacks or taking part in messy communal or buffet-style eating when you can. Kristine Arthur, MD, an internist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center, tells SheKnows, to avoid communal snacks (think: donut boxes, open plates of cookies, anything from outside your household). “Avoid these at all costs, as they have been exposed to coughs, sneezes and even possible touching,” she says.
Avoid large groups of people (or at least try)
We know social distancing wasn’t any fun, but it works for a reason. Influenza and the common cold as well as COVID-19 are spread by other people transmitting their viruses, so if you’re in a position to stay home and do remote work or remote learning, it’s definitely a safe way to go. Otherwise, being strategic and smart about the crowds and environments you’re in to reduce the odds of being around sick people is a must. Additionally, wear a mask, wash your hands frequently (especially after shaking hands or other contact with others), and encourage everyone else you’re coming in contact with to do the same.
One tip for trying to avoid huge crowds of possibly sick people: “When shopping, try to avoid peak busy times when stores are crowded and you are exposed to a higher number of possibly sick shoppers,” Dr. Arthut suggests.
And, of course, if you are sick or not feeling well, cancel plans and stay home. It’s not worth the risk of spreading your germs to someone else!
Winter is fun, right?
During the colder months, you’re typically indoors way more than you’d like and are constantly surrounded by germy people. If you take a few preventative measures like getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, and practicing good hygiene, you may be able to avoid getting sick and do your part to keep your community and your home healthy and happy.
A version of this story was published October 2018.
Before you go, check out our favorite all natural cold remedies for kids: