8 Doctor-Recommended Tips for Staying Healthy During Cold and Flu Season

Chad Birt

Written by Chad Birt on Wed Jan 10 2024.

Couple drinking coffee on couch.

Millions of Americans come down with respiratory viruses like the cold and flu each winter. These ailments affect people of all ages, but they present potentially severe risks for the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. 

Since many of the family caregivers in our community care for loved ones 65 and older, we wanted to see if there was a way to prevent or at least reduce the risk of these common illnesses. We connected with Soma Mandal, MD, a board-certified internal medicine physician at Summit Health in New Jersey to learn more. Below, we provide simple tips for keeping you and your loved ones healthy all season long. 

Why Are People More Likely To Get Sick During the Winter?

Dr. Mandal says there are several reasons people are more likely to get sick during the winter. “First…people tend to spend more time indoors and in close proximity to each other,” she explains. “This makes it easier for viruses to spread from one person to another.”

Additionally, “the cold weather weakens our body’s defenses. Our immune system, which is our body’s defense against infections, doesn’t work as well in colder temperatures. That’s why it’s important to stay warm and well-nourished during the cold weather.”

Dr. Mandal says lack of sunlight is also a factor. “Sunlight stimulates the natural production of vitamin D in human beings. During winter, the body is less exposed to sunlight (especially in colder climates). This can lead to vitamin D deficiency which can make us more susceptible to infection.”

8 Doctor-Recommended Tips for Staying Healthy During Cold and Flu Season

Now that you know why viral infections are more common from December to March, let’s take a closer look at some of the best ways to protect yourself and your loved ones.

1) Stay Hydrated

Drinking plenty of fluids is crucial for proper digestion and heart function, but it also reduces your risk of infection. Specifically, it “prevents the mucous membranes from drying out,” Dr. Mandal says. Since the mucous membranes prevent harmful microorganisms, like viruses and bacteria, from entering the body, keeping them moist is essential. 

You don’t necessarily need to drink 8, 8-ounce glasses of water daily, but you do need to stay consistent with fluids. If you or your loved one don’t enjoy regular tap water, try squeezing some lemon or lime into the cup for a burst of flavor. Herbal tea and fresh fruit juice are also great options, and you may want to include beverages with electrolytes, such as Gatorade and Pedialyte. 

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2) Eat a Balanced, Nutritious Diet

When you’re under the weather, you probably don’t feel like cooking, but good nutrition is still important. Rather than heating a frozen pizza or driving to McDonald’s, consider healthier options. “Eat a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables,” Dr. Mandal says. In particular, “foods rich in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, strawberries, and peppers.” 

Vitamin C is known for its immune-boosting properties, and may even reduce the duration of certain infections. In one study, people with colds who took a vitamin C supplement recovered 8% quicker than those who didn’t.  

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3) Take Immune-Boosting Nutritional Supplements

Most of us get the necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from the food we eat, but in certain situations, nutritional supplementation is beneficial. Although everyone’s needs vary, Dr. Mandal recommends the following immune-boosting supplements:

  • Vitamin D - As it’s “essential for bone health, immune system function, and mental health.”

  • Vitamin C - “This vitamin is important for the immune system and is beneficial during cold and flu season.”

  • Omega-3 fatty acids - “Ever feel that your skin is dry during the wintertime?” Dr. Mandal asks. “This is a great supplement that helps combat dry, flaky skin.”

  • Zinc - “I often recommend this during the winter months to shorten the duration of colds and boost the immune system.” 

  • Magnesium - “Which can help with sleep and stress management.” (More on that below)

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4) Get Plenty of Sleep

Whenever possible, aim for at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night. “Sleep is a natural immune booster,” Dr. Mandal says. “During sleep, our bodies actively produce and release proteins called cytokines, which help protect the body against inflammation and infection. Certain immune cells, known as T cells, are enhanced by sleep. When we don’t get enough sleep, stress hormones can inhibit these defenses and make it harder for our immune system to fight off infections.” 

Use a humidifier to take your sleep to the next level. Moist air breaks up congestion, making it easier to breathe. There’s also evidence it reduces the infectivity of virus particles. In other words, you’re less likely to get your loved one’s sick.

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5) Exercise Regularly

Moving your body is good for your heart, muscles, gut, and brain. It also bolsters your immune system’s defenses, so you’re less likely to get sick. Exercise can be difficult if you have mobility issues, but don’t let that keep you from getting your heart rate up. Chair exercises are a great place to start! 

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6) Get Your Annual Flu & COVID-19 Shot

Did you get a flu and COVID-19 shot this year? If not, there’s still time to reap the rewards. “Keep up with your vaccinations,” Dr. Mandal says. “Get your annual flu shot, COVID vaccine, and any other vaccines like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and pneumonia vaccines (if you are eligible).”

A vaccine won’t necessarily keep you from getting sick, but it can reduce your risk of severe complications, like hospitalization and death.

7) Practice Good Hand Hygiene

After the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re probably a hand hygiene pro, but it never hurts to refresh on best practices. “Wash your hands regularly and avoid close contact with people who are sick,” says Dr. Mandal. “Washing [your] hands every couple of hours or using hand sanitizer when water and soap are not available are all ways to keep viruses at bay.”

For the best results, use warm water and soap, and scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Sing the birthday song twice in a row if you don’t have a timer or watch available to keep track. 

8) Manage Stress

We all experience stress, but if it becomes a chronic problem, you may get sick more frequently. “Long-term stress can wear down your immune system,” Dr. Mandal explains. “Find outlets like meditation, yoga, or other relaxation techniques.” Even reading a good book or turning off email notifications can go a long way toward maintaining your sanity.

Have Questions About Cold and Flu Season? We’re Here To Assist!

Caring for a loved one during cold and flu season presents unique challenges, especially if your care recipient is immunocompromised. This time of year can be very stressful, but with the right items on hand, you can ensure your loved one has everything they need to thrive. If you have questions about a specific product or simply want recommendations, contact us! Our friendly Care Team loves helping caregivers and is available for support 24/7. Call (800) 696-CARE or send an email to support@carewell.com.

Staying Healthy During Cold and Flu Season - Commonly Asked Questions

1) What can I do to help my loved one stay healthy if they’re immunocompromised?

If your loved one is immunocompromised, encourage them to wear a face mask in crowded areas where they’re more likely to encounter viruses. “Wearing a mask, such as an N95, when shopping or on flights can help them from getting sick,” Dr. Mandal says.

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2) Can magnesium help if I have the flu?

Yes! Magnesium can be very beneficial if you have flu-related symptoms, like body aches or sore muscles. “I recommend getting it transdermally, through a nice Epsom salt bath,” Dr. Mandal says. “This not only keeps us warm, but it keeps our magnesium levels normal and keeps our muscles relaxed.” Magnesium can also help you sleep, which you already know is important for immunity.

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3) How long does the flu last?

The time a flu infection lasts depends on several factors, including the virus responsible and your general health. Most people start feeling better after 5-7 days, but it may take longer. If your loved one develops a high fever (e.g. 104 degrees Fahrenheit or greater) that doesn’t improve with over-the-counter pain medication, visit the doctor immediately.

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Chad Birt
Chad Birt

Chad Birt is a freelance medical writer who resides in Astoria, Oregon. When he isn't behind a keyboard, you can find him hiking, camping, or birdwatching with his wife Ella and their two dogs, Diane and Thoreau.