The common cold is one of the most feared parts of these chilly winter months. And while it may seem unavoidable (your S.O. is sick; your coworkers are dropping like flies; did the cat just sniffle?), there are science-backed ways to keep those icky germs at bay.
Arming yourself starts with a holistic view of health, says Kelly Reynolds, PhD, a microbiologist and associate professor at the University of Arizona. That means watching not just what gets on your body (hello, hand sanitizer!) but inside it, too.
Keep reading for 5 ways to keep colds at bay.
1. Drink Up
H2O, that is. While excess alcohol can dampen your white blood cells’ ability to kill viruses, water helps keep you in top-top, cold-fighting shape. That’s especially important when you fly, because the low humidity of an airplane can dry out the mucus lining of your nose and throat, making you more vulnerable to viruses.
2. Watch the clock
Washing your hands is imperative when it comes to fighting off germs because respiratory viruses can survive on plastic surfaces for 24 hours. That means, even if you avoid sitting next to someone snuffling at the office meeting, you could still be picking up viruses every time you touch an elevator button, a subway seat, a vending machine (the list goes on).
Washing will zap those cooties, but the vast majority of people don’t scrub for long enough. “The most effective way is 20 seconds or longer,” says Reynolds. “And that’s a long time.” Reynolds points out that in her own office’s bathrooms, the automatic faucets only run for seven-second clips. “So I’m doing three cycles. Time is the most important factor.” And don’t be a wimp about it—vigorous rubbing literally helps work germs away, and soapy suds only help the cause.
3. Stop touching your face
Germs are everywhere—and pretty much unavoidable. But “germs can sit on your hands all day and not cause a problem,” says Reynolds. “It’s hand-to-face contact that leads to transmission.” And people tend to touch their face more than three times every hour, researchers have found. It can be a hard habit to break, but making a conscious effort to keep your mitts away from your mug can boost your health this winter.
4. Eat right and work out
A well-balanced meal is always a good idea, even more so during cold season. Proper nutrition helps your immune system stay strong, Reynolds says, and plays a big role in that holistic wellness plan. Sweating it out at the gym is important, too—strengthening your body strengthens your immune system. In fact, a study in the American Journal of Medicine found that people who were mostly sedentary (their physical activity was limited to stretching once a week) caught colds three times more often than a group tasked with working out with moderate intensity five days a week. “Exercising outweighs the germ risk of the gym,” says Reynolds. Just be sure to wipe down that machine before and after your sweat sesh.
5. Always be prepared
Disinfecting hand gel can do a lot of good when you’re on the go. And while there’s evidence that certain regulated ingredients like triclosan can potentially cause bacteria to become resistant to these germ-killers, alcohol-based sanitizers remain highly effective. “They kill germs, and there’s no evidence whatsoever of that weakening our immunity or creating mutant bacteria,” Reynolds says. Look for a hand gel that has at least 50 percent alcohol or ethanol to ensure it’s an effective bug-killer.