The dark days of winter are the perfect time for viruses that cause colds and flu to spread.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not going outside in winter that makes you more likely to catch the cold or flu. Colds and flu are caused by viruses and spread by sneezing, coughing and hand contact. Your chances of catching a cold or the flu increase during winter simply because people tend to stay indoors and are in closer contact with each other. So how can you combat this?
Get up, get out, get moving
Getting outside and doing at least 30 minutes moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week can actually help support your immune system to fight off winter bugs. Here are some top tips to boost your daily activity, even with a busy work schedule:
Fit in exercise as part of your regular day. Try getting off the bus/train a stop early, park further away, or build in some extra movement by taking stairs instead of escalators or the lift.
Wrap up and travel a little further afield for your mid-morning coffee, or go for an outdoor lunchtime walk.
Consider participating in a fun run, charity cycling event or a short triathlon to keep you motivated, and for the support you can get as part of a training group.
Your diet also affects how well your immune system works to fight off infection, so healthy eating is especially important throughout the colder months.
This means eating a range of colourful fruits and vegetables high in fibre, vitamins and minerals as part of a balanced diet, which also includes low-fat dairy products, lean protein, fibre and wholegrains. This helps give your body the nutrients it needs to function at its best as well as protect you from illness.
Some foods may also have anti-viral properties, perhaps helping to make your symptoms milder and go away faster. You can try garlic, vitamin C and zinc to see if any work for you. Chicken soup and other hot fluids have even been shown to be good for cold and flu too, helping you feel better and ease some of your symptoms.
Lack of sleep can affect our moods and make us more infection-prone, so make sleep a priority to stay well this winter. Try establishing a relaxing routine before you go to bed, such as having a hot bath, or reading a book.
Preventing colds and flu
If someone has an infection you may be able to reduce the chances of it spreading in the office by maintaining good hygiene and a bit of extra distance.
Wash hands regularly and thoroughly in hot, soapy water or use hand sanitisers.
Keep shared surfaces such as door handles clean, and keep from sharing cups or towels.
If you get sick stay home if you can, especially if you’re sneezing and coughing a lot.
If your symptoms persist beyond seven to 10 days, or if they get worse, see your GP.
Better Health Channel. Colds Explained. 2011. (www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au)
Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Cuneyt MA et al. Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Arch Intern Med 2009; 169: 62–7.
Dietitians Association of Australia. Diet key to fighting winter colds and flu. 2008. (daa.asn.au)
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2012. The Flu, the Common Cold, and Complementary Health Practices: What the Science Says. (nccam.nih.gov/)
National Prescribing Service. 2008. Common Colds Need Common Sense, Not Antibiotics. (www.nps.org.au)
Nieman DC, Henson DA, Austin MD, Brown VA. Immune response to a 30-minute walk. Med Sci Sports Exerc 37: 57–62.
About the author
Dr Paul Bates is the Chief Medical Officer, Peak Health Management, part of Bupa