In these cold, dark days of winter, you’re likely spending more time indoors — and in close quarters with others — than you would in the spring or summer. Whether that makes you feel cozy or stir-crazy, it also puts you at a higher risk of catching a cold or other virus. To find out if there’s a way to avoid getting sick altogether, we asked five doctors and a nurse practitioner what they recommend for staying healthy. To fend off the flu, the No. 1 thing you can do is get vaccinated, but for the common cold and other viruses floating around, read on for the doctors’ suggestions to keep them at bay. (And if it’s the coronavirus that’s got you panicked, don’t bother buying a face mask. Doctors tell us why, here.)
“A strong immune system is our best defense against any illness,” says family nurse practitioner Marina Yuabova of Integrative Wellness NY. Doctors stress that consistent, healthy lifestyle practices like eating a healthy and varied diet, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and frequent hand washing will make you less vulnerable to infections. “When you’re run down and you’re dehydrated or stressed, your body will be more susceptible to [viruses] getting in,” says Erich Voigt, an ENT doctor at NYU Langone. Eating plenty of vegetables and fruits will likely get you all of the vitamins and minerals your immune system needs to stay in top shape, but Navya Mysore, a family practitioner and medical director of the One Medical Tribeca office, recommends supplementing with vitamin D, especially in the winter when we’re not absorbing as much from the sun. “It’s very rare that you find someone who has a perfect vitamin D level in the Northeast during the winter,” she says. She suggests a minimum dose of 2,000 IU per day.
We all know someone who swears by taking a megadose of vitamin C at the first sign of a cold. While emergency room physician Peter Shearer says the evidence of these home remedies is scant, since they often don’t have any side effects, doctors are generally fine with them. Mysore says there is some support that taking vitamin C at the start of a cold can be helpful, but “even then it’s not strong evidence.” And Shearer points out, “There are no scientifically proven boosters for the immune system in the way that people think. The flu vaccine could be thought of as a boost for your immune system because it prepares your immune cells for a real influenza exposure.” So while there are lots of herbal remedies, teas, and lozenges promising to keep you healthy, there are only a few — more on those below — that doctors say are worth trying.
Dr. Judy Tung, an internist at Weill Cornell Medicine & New York-Presbyterian says, “Vitamin C and zinc have been intensely studied. The evidence is mixed, but in moderate quantities, they are not harmful. I do sometimes advise my patients to take over-the-counter zinc at the start of a cold to prevent it from getting worse or lasting too long, too.” According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s speculated that zinc works by preventing the rhinovirus — the virus that causes most colds — from multiplying. Tung says, “zinc gluconate lozenges are what I recommend as there may be some additional benefit through the reduction of viral entry from the zinc coating in the back of the throat that you get from lozenges.”
Echinacea is another ingredient that gets tossed around when talking about supplements that’ll ward off a cold. Like vitamin C and zinc, it may help, though Shearer doesn’t think it has any miraculous cold-fighting powers. “Echinacea preparations may reduce the risk of catching a cold and may modestly help treat the common cold,” he says. “Buyers should know that the research isn’t strong.” He also cautions that because supplements aren’t regulated, the pill or tincture you’re taking may not have as much echinacea as its label claims. If you want to try it out, though, singer Doe Paoro uses this echinacea throat spray to preserve her voice.
According to naturopathic doctor Amy Rothenberg, “The majority of our immune system is generated in our gut, so it’s important to focus our attention there.” She explains that probiotic supplements promote “a diverse and robust microbiome,” which helps the body ward off infections. This LoveBug supplement combines probiotic strains with other doctor-approved ingredients like vitamin C, zinc, and echinacea.
“A humidifier by your bed is super key,” says Mysore, who advises using one, especially during the winter when dry indoor air can irritate your throat and nasal passages, potentially making you more vulnerable to catching cold. “A lot of viruses can increase and propagate in the dryness,” she says. Yuabova says humidifying the air you breathe is also beneficial for easing cold symptoms once you’ve gotten sick. One of our favorite humidifiers, the Honeywell uses ultraviolet light to kill bacteria in the water you put inside.
Like Mysore, Voigt says he’s also “a proponent of keeping your nasal membranes moist and lubricated because when they’re dry, viral particles can get in very easily.” He recommends using a little bit of nasal saline gel to keep your nasal membranes moist. He’ll often do this before flying, when he’ll be exposed to very dry air and lots of germs in an enclosed space.
All six experts agree that regular handwashing is one of the best ways of staying germ-free. There’s no need to seek out antibacterial hand soap, so choose one you’re more likely to use, whether it’s because you like the scent, it leaves your hands feeling soft, or it’s just nice to look at. “Antibacterial soap kills a lot of bacteria, including the natural ones on our hands,” says Voigt. “We have natural protective bacteria on us, so we don’t need to constantly kill all of our own bacteria.” The CDC recommends washing your hands for at least 20 seconds, and Rothenberg says to always wash “after being around a person who is symptomatic, before preparing food, [and] before eating.” Mysore advises taking the time to wash underneath your fingernails as germs can linger there as well; and making sure your hands are clean before putting in or taking out contact lenses as viruses and bacteria can be introduced through the eyes.
For cleaning hands on the go, Shearer says “alcohol-based hand sanitizers are convenient [and] keep bioparticles off your hands.” This doesn’t mean you need to use hospital-grade Purell. Anything with alcohol will work, like this Aesop “rinse-free hand wash,” a favorite of Strategist beauty writer Rio Viera-Newton’s. She says it’s “worth the investment.”
All the things we touch each day, from door knobs to subway poles, are often covered in disease-carrying germs. To minimize these at home or work, Shearer says, “antibacterial wipes are good for highly trafficked shared surfaces.” These Seventh Generation wipes use a botanical disinfectant naturally found in thyme oil, so they’re safe for use around kids and pets.
In her own home, Mysore uses these wipes, which are actually compostable. “I challenged myself to find ones that are environmentally friendly and that would be pet-safe and baby-safe,” she says. “I use them to wipe down counters and doors, especially when we had a round of colds going around our house.”