The best thing you can do to feel healthy during the colder months? Stop a cold from taking over your body in the first place. In fact, there are a bevy of ways you can prevent colds and shorten their length. Here’s exactly what you can do fight them off all season long, so you can save those sick days for something more fun.
1. Crank up the humidifier
Low humidity dries out your nasal passages, making it harder to trap and eliminate the micro-bugs that settle in your sinuses, eventually leading to a cold. The fix? Invest in a humidifier and keep it running when the air starts to feel dry.
“A humidifier may help to keep the mucous membranes moist. Dry mucous membranes in the nose inhibit your body’s ability to trap germs as they enter your system,” says Amber Tully, MD, a family medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic.
But make sure you keep your humidifier clean, as the warm moist environment can become a breeding ground for mold (which can also cause cold-like symptoms if you’re allergic to it).
2. Load up on vitamin D.
Research shows that people who don’t get enough vitamin D are much more likely to suffer from an upper respiratory infection—causing a cough, scratchy throat, or stuffy nose—than those who load up on the sunshine vitamin, potentially because your cells depend on D to activate their infection-fighting responses. “Some studies have shown that supplementing with 400 international units of vitamin D per day may prevent respiratory infections,” says Dr. Khan.
Currently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggest that most adults aim for at least 600 IUs per day, but some organizations recommend much more than that. Getting enough vitamin D through your diet alone is tough (you can find it in foods like salmon, beef, egg yolks, fortified milk and orange juice, cheese, and mushrooms), so if you suspect you’re low, talk to your doctor about finding a supplement that works for you and your needs.
3. Keep your hands clean—and away from eyes, nose, or mouth.
Even if you don’t notice it, you likely touch your face a lot. In fact, one small 2008 study found that the participants touched their face an average 16 times per hour. That’s a major no-no during cold and flu season: When you come in contact with a virus—through another person or an infected surface—it can enter your system if your hands aren’t properly cleaned, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Viruses also spread by skin-to-skin contact, such as a handshake,” says Dr. Clements.
So, maintain a hands-off policy. “This prevents germs on your hands being transferred into your mucous membrane (nose and mouth) and getting you sick,” says Dr. Tully.
While you’re at it, make sure you’re washing your hands the right way. Use soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds (get between your fingers and underneath your nails!), says the CDC. Opt for hand sanitizer (like these travel size bottles from Purell) if you’re in a pinch.
4. Disinfect your phone.
Think of all the places you put your phone down during the day: the kitchen counter, a bathroom stall, your restaurant table—talk about a germ-fest.
In fact, a 2012 University of Arizona study found that cell phones may carry 10 times the amount of bacteria than toilet seats.
To disinfect your devices, Apple suggests using a Lysol or Clorox disinfecting wipe. Just be sure to shut down your phone, squeeze out any excess liquid (you don’t want a pool of the stuff sitting on your screen), and dry it off with a soft lint-free cloth. Keep in mind that while bleach is great for banishing viruses, products containing the substance might damage your phone.
5. Find some time to relax.
Feeling on edge? Feeling run-down can actually pave the way for a cold, since stress causes your body to pump out excess cortisol, a hormone that can weaken your immune system’s ability to fight infection, says Dr. Tully,
So make winding down a priority: Take up yoga, try meditation, go for a daily stroll through nature, or prioritize some time after work to make dinner with your family—anything that helps you shake off a long day will help.
6. Get plenty of sleep.
A good snooze is key when it comes to preventing colds. In one JAMA Internal Medicine study, researchers gave 153 healthy men and women nasal drops containing rhinovirus and tracked their sleep habits. They found that people who regularly got less than seven hours of sleep were three times more likely to come down with a cold than those who slept eight hours or more each night. The National Sleep Foundation recommends aiming for at least 7 to 9 hours per night. Can’t seem to doze off? Check out these 100 ways to sleep better every night.
7. Reach for zinc.
Research suggests that zinc can actually decrease the growth of viruses, says Dr. Clements. Plus, taking zinc (typically in the form of zinc lozenges or zinc gluconate nasal sprays) seems to reduce the duration and severity of symptoms right after they come on, according to the NIH.
“Although the proper dosing is unclear at this time, studies have shown a benefit only at daily doses greater than 75 milligrams,” says Dr. Clements. The NIH suggests most adults needs much less than that to meet their daily needs, so just go for foods rich in zinc, rather than a supplement (unless you talk to your doc about it first). Meat, tofu, oysters, and lentils are all great sources of the mineral.
8. Label your drinking glass.
“When a family member has a cold, try to use disposable glasses or label glasses. This can help to prevent accidental spread of the virus,” says Dr. Khan. And be extra careful when it comes to sharing objects that can get contaminated by a family member who is sick, such as telephones, towels, or utensils.
9. Power up with probiotics.
Not all bacteria are bad—the good kind of bugs in your gut, found in probiotic foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kombucha, might give your immune system a boost. After all, a large portion of your immune system can be found right in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
One 2014 study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport actually found that rugby players who took a probiotic supplement experienced far fewer colds and GI infections than those who popped a placebo.
More research needs to be done to confirm that probiotics can truly keep viruses away, but studies suggest that the good bugs seem to be beneficial when symptoms hit, too. For instance, in a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that even though college students taking probiotics or a placebo caught colds at a similar rate, those taking probiotics experienced less intense symptoms (like a stuffy nose or sore throat) for a shorter amount of time.
10. Get the flu vaccine.
While the cold and flu are caused by very different viruses, they can feel awfully similar when it comes to symptoms. However, the flu will hit you harder and can have risky complications, especially if you already have a weakened immune system. The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to get the flu shot every year, since the circulating viruses constantly change. The CDC recommends getting the flu shot (or nasal spray) as soon as the vaccine is available, ideally before October.