- Doctors say getting the flu vaccine is their top recommendation
- Fresh air, relaxation, cleanliness and sleep can also help prevent sickness
- Survey says less than 40% wash their hands after coughing which leads to more illnesses
Ever wonder why you always seem to come down with a life-interrupting virus this time of year, while other women you know sail through the season sniffle-, cough-, and ache-free?
We canvassed the research and talked to top experts to uncover these key, study-backed secrets for staying well, even when you're surrounded by germs. The docs' #1 tip: Get the flu vaccine, ASAP. Then, follow these simple steps to boost your virus protection even more.
Secret #1: Make friends with fresh air
Common wisdom has it that staying indoors, where it's warm and toasty, is easier on your immune system than being outside in the cold. Problem is, being inside puts you in close constant contact with other people -- and their germs.
Adding insult to injury, you're already more vulnerable to illness now: Winter air is dry, whether you're indoors or out, so it pulls moisture from cough and sneeze droplets. That makes the drops lighter, so they -- and the cold and flu viruses inside them -- can hang around in the air longer. The arid air also dries out your nasal passages, creating cracks that viruses are all too happy to invade.
Not only does escaping into the fresh air give you a break from all those germs circulating inside, but going for a stroll can actually boost your immunity: A 2010 Appalachian State University study showed that people who walked briskly for 30 to 45 minutes a day five days a week during the winter had fewer illnesses than their sedentary counterparts.
"Exercise leads to an increase in natural killer cells, neutrophils, and monocytes, which ultimately increases immune function," says Ather Ali, N.D., M.P.H., assistant director of Complementary/Alternative Medicine Research at the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center.
Secret #2: Relaxation fights off colds (Yes, really)
We know, we know -- you're heading into the holidays, your kids are home from school, you've got family and work craziness, and your schedule is packed with parties and shopping marathons. There are a trillion reasons why taking time to chill out might be the last item on your to-do list. But here's why it should be a priority: "Being stressed will increase your susceptibility to catching a cold," says Ali.
That may be because, over the long term, it leads to the ongoing release of stress hormones, such as glucocorticoids. These impede your body's ability to produce cell-signaling molecules called cytokines, which trigger a disease-fighting response from your immune system.
"You're also less likely to take care of yourself -- get ample sleep, eat right, exercise -- when you're stressed," says Ali, which is crucial to upping your immunity (see secrets #1 and #4!).
Secret #3: Clean hands are everything
Cold and flu can spread all too easily through touch -- especially after you handle hard surfaces like tables and doorknobs, where viruses can survive for two to eight hours. Keep your fingers away from your eyes, nose, and mo