How to avoid catching colds or flu

Woman blowing her nose

It’s that time of year when colds and flu seem to be everywhere. Many of the people we come into contact with are coughing or sneezing, and few of us will make it through the next few months without catching a cold.

In fact, adults can expect to get up to 4 colds each year, with symptoms lasting for a week or two. On top of that, many of us will get flu, which can linger for much longer.

While there's no cure for colds and flu, there are 9 things that you can do to reduce your risk of catching them in the first place.

1. Take regular exercise

Studies show that staying active can halve your risk of catching a cold. This is because bouts of exercise spark a temporary rise in immune system cells circulating around the body, making it easier to fight off bugs.

Even if you do succumb to a cold, those who are physically active tend to suffer less severe symptoms and recover more quickly. Just 20 minutes of exercise, on 5 days of the week, is enough to make a difference. Try taking a brisk walk, swimming, stretching or Tai Chi.

How exercise changed my life

2. Wash your hands

Practising good hand hygiene is one of the most effective ways to protect ourselves from colds and flu - but most of us aren’t washing our hands correctly.

Cold and flu expert Professor John Oxford, virologist at London Queen Mary’s School of Medicine and Dentistry, says: 'We should wash our hands around 6 times each day, after using the toilet, gardening, petting animals and before eating.

'It takes some time to wash your hands properly; you should be able to sing "Happy Birthday To You" once, or even better, twice, during the hand washing process.'

Banish lingering bugs by using hot water and soap, and paying attention to the skin between fingers, under fingernails and around rings.

3. Don’t touch your face

Even if you wash your hands regularly, it’s wise to keep your hands away from your face.

If you can avoid rubbing your eyes and nose and putting your fingers into your mouth you’re less likely to become infected, as it will be harder for the cold or flu viruses to invade your body.

4. Have the flu jab

The best way to prevent flu is to be vaccinated every year in October or November, before flu season begins.

Although it isn’t 100% effective, if you do catch flu you'll probably have milder symptoms than if you hadn’t been vaccinated. The jab is available free on the NHS to everyone aged 65 and over, and to people of any age who suffer from certain health problems including serious heart complaints, chest complaints, kidney disease and diabetes.

Some people worry that the jab itself could cause flu, but this is untrue, as it doesn’t contain live viruses. However you may experience some side effects, such as a temperature and aching muscles, for a day or two after you’ve had the vaccine.

If you’re not eligible for the flu jab on the NHS, you can pay to have it privately at some pharmacies and GP clinics.

5. Get enough sleep

Your immune system works best when you’re well rested, and a study from Carnegie Mellon University in the US shows that people who get less than seven hours of shut-eye a night are more likely to get ill.

If you have trouble sleeping, take a look at our guide to getting a good night’s sleep.

6. Drink water

Research suggests that keeping your fluids topped up could help to stave off illness, including colds and flu.

This is because water helps prevent dehydration and, if you have a cold, loosens congestion.

Aim to drink around 6-8 cups or mugs of fluid each day. Water is the best choice, but dilute squash is fine, too. Alcohol and coffee should be avoided, though, as they make dehydration worse.

7. Eat well

'It’s important to eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. This will provide your immune system with the variety of vitamins, minerals and other chemicals needed for optimum protection from colds and flu,' says British Dietetic Association spokesperson Alison Hornby.

'Antioxidants such as vitamin C have a strong reputation but won’t do the job alone. A healthy, balanced diet is the best preparation for cold and flu season and most people won’t need to take a supplement on top.'

Read our healthy eating overview

8. Stop smoking

Smokers get more colds than non-smokers - and these colds tend to last for longer. This is because smoking impairs the nasal passages, making it easier for cold and flu viruses to multiply.

Smoking also damages cells in the lungs, making it harder to fight off colds and increasing the risk of developing respiratory problems such as bronchitis.

Quitting boosts your immune system, making it easier to fight off colds and flu.

What if you do get a cold?

If you do catch a cold, take paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease fever and aches and pains, have plenty to drink, and have a hot bath or shower as the steam can help to clear a blocked nose.

If your symptoms don’t improve or get worse, after a week, then it’s best to make an appointment with your GP.

Winter Health with Dr Sarah Jarvis

Dr Sarah Jarvis offers advice on how to avoid coughs, colds and the flu this winter.

More health features

Winter Health with Dr Sarah Jarvis

Words: Ceri Roberts

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