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Most of us know when the cold or flu is making its dreadful rounds in the office, starting with the cacophony of coughs and sneezes in the cubicles and, later on, denoted by rows of empty desks. (Grab the disinfectant wipes!)
But what about doctors and nurses who are surrounded by germs pretty much on a daily basis? In addition to their medical training, they have real-world experience fending off the flu, which double-qualifies them as being experts on this topic.
So, we asked them: What are your best secrets for staying healthy during cold and flu season?
First and foremost, they get the flu shot. But here’s what else they do to keep their immune systems healthy and strong.
1. “I get consistent sleep.”
“As a father of three school-age children and as a primary care physician at a large teaching institution that sees a lot of viral illnesses during ‘flu season,’ my primary protection and No. 1 recommendation is to get adequate sleep,” says Dr. Y. Pritham Raj.
Raj, the medical director at the Emotional Wellness Center at Adventist Health Portland and an associate professor at Oregon Health and Science University, says we tend to be a sleep-deprived society that is collectively run-down. When we neglect sleep, our immune systems don’t function their best and that makes us more susceptible to infections, he explains.
During flu season, Raj says he does his best to get eight hours of sleep each night. To really get this right, it’s important to keep a dedicated sleep schedule, going to bed at the same time each night and not straying from that by more than an hour, he says.
2. “I take all-natural supplements.”
Rebecca Lee, a registered nurse from New York City and creator of Remedies For Me, says her favorite flu-preventing supplement combination is vitamin D, chlorella, ginseng, turmeric, elderberry and omega-3.
“I love to travel and am always on the go, so staying healthy is important to me,” she says. “I find this combination works the best, and it works fast, especially if taken at the first signs of any symptoms.”
Her combo is packed with vitamins and antioxidants, she says. As an example, chlorella can increase the levels of IgA antibody levels, which can stop the flu virus from spreading and infecting surrounding cells. Vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin,” can also boost the immune system, Lee says.
If you don’t get at least 30 minutes of direct sunlight a day, she recommends eating foods rich in vitamin D or taking supplements. Egg yolks, shiitake mushrooms and milk are all rich in vitamin D.
3. “I eat chicken noodle soup.”
Dr. Gustavo Ferrer, a pulmonologist and author of “Cough Cures,” has an arsenal of flu-prevention techniques. He takes vitamin D3 supplements, which a study published in the British Medical Journal showed could help protect against acute respiratory tract infections.
He also takes probiotics to help keep his immune and digestive system healthy. Ferrer uses Xlear Nasal Spray because the natural saline solution can kill microbes in the nasal passages. During flu season, he says he also spices up meals with garlic because its a strong antimicrobial.
But one of his go-to tricks? Some good, old-fashioned chicken noodle soup. A study in the journal CHEST found that chicken soup could have a mild anti-inflammatory effect, helping prevent upper respiratory tract infections. Grandma was right all along!
4. “I take vitamins.”
As a doctor of internal medicine, Dr. Arielle Levitan is exposed to people with the flu on a daily basis.
“Of course I get the flu shot, wash hands diligently (and with no gels) and I take a personalized multivitamin with adequate amounts of Vitamin C, D and other nutrients that I believe help support my immune system,” says Levitan, who is also the co-founder of Vous Vitamin LLC.
5. “I wash my hands vigorously.”
“The single best way to avoid contracting the flu is vigorous hand washing,” says Dr. Stepheny Berry, an assistant professor in the department of surgery at the University of Kansas Health System.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing hands for at least 15 seconds, but notes that the time it takes is less important than making sure all areas of your hands are clean. Commonly missed areas, according to the CDC, include thumbs, fingertips and between fingers.
6. “I recommend sneezing into your elbow rather than a Kleenex.”
You may have heard it before: Doctors recommend sneezing into a sleeve, rather than a tissue. Dr. Terry Layman, from OurHealth, an Indianapolis-based health-care provider, explained the rationale in a recent podcast.
When you sneeze into a Kleenex, some of the germs go into the tissue, but others stick to our hands and then are spread to steering wheels, keyboards, door handles and other surfaces that we touch, Layman explains. Also, many people carry those tissues around or stuff them in their pockets, continuing to spread the flu particles. Germs can live on surfaces for a few minutes or up to 24 hours, he says.
“Our hands are everywhere,” Layman explains. But, our elbows have limited interactions.