While autumn is no doubt a great time of year (foliage! fall fashion! pumpkin everything!), dropping temperatures give rise to one of the biggest bummers of the year: the flu virus. From approximately October through May every year, 5 to 20 percent of Americans contract the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What’s more, the CDC further reports that the 2017 flu season was the worst on record, with an estimated 80,000 Americans dying from the flu and flu-related complications.
But the news isn’t all bad. By taking a few steps—namely, correcting course on some learned behavior—you can safeguard yourself against this every-present virus. In order to help you do so, we’ve uncovered all of the nasty habits you’ll need to forego in order to stay healthy this flu season. So read on to minimize your flu risk.
Substituting antibacterial hand gel for soap and water
If you’re prone to substituting a quick dash of antibacterial hand gel (that’s fancy for “Purell”) for a thorough wash with soap and water, then you might be putting yourself at risk for contracting the flu, Dr. Roshini Raj, a gastroenterologist at New York University Medical Center, told the TODAY show. As it turns out, the more old-fashioned soap and water method is actually more effective at killing harmful bacteria—as in, the bacteria that could give you the flu.
Not washing hands for long enough
On a similar note, if you are washing your hands, but aren’t washing the correct way, then you’re still doing more harm than good without realizing it. According to Dr. Raj, make sure that you’re washing your hands for at least 20 seconds before drying them off. On top of that, you should be washing your hands after preparing food, coughing or sneezing, and going to the bathroom, since germs can creep in at any moment.
Spending too much time at the gym
Sure, hitting the gym often is excellent for your all-around health. But if you push it too far, you can weaken your immune system, says Dr. Raj. “Regular exercise is actually great for your body, good for your immune system. But if you’re overdoing it, over-exerting yourself, you’re not hydrating properly, you could actually depress your immune system and be more prone to getting an infection,” she said.
You’re not getting enough sleep
If you find that there are many stressors in your life that can contribute to a weakened immune system, then achieving a good night’s sleep many counteract a few of these habits. However, if you find that you have trouble achieving the recommended seven hours of sleep per night (as per the National Sleep Foundation), then you might be damaging your body’s defenses against the flu even further.
You’ve heard it 395,190,749 times, but it bears a 395,190,750th: smoking is the most harmful habit that you could possess, as it makes you more susceptible to illness by breaking down the cilia, or the hair-like projections, in your nose and lungs that help sweep out germs. When you smoke, it makes your entire immune system weaker.
You’re drinking alcohol often
For up to 24 hours after being drunk, according to DrinkWise, your immune system’s functions are inhibited, due to the change of liver function turning the immune system against the body’s own tissues. So, during flu season, keep these nights of debauchery to a minimum.
Being friendly with those affected
Even if your friend or significant other claims to be “getting over the flu,” there’s still a chance that they may be carrying the virus. Getting in close personal contact with those recently infected with the flu puts you at risk for contracting the illness as well. So, if someone claims to be afflicted with the flu, steer clear of them.
Not getting enough zinc
If you’re in the habit of avoiding consuming foods with high zinc content, like eggs, nuts, and legumes, then you may also be unknowingly putting yourself in harm’s way. As it turns out, zinc is very beneficial for your immune system; according to Harvard Health Publishing, the nutrient is a bulwark against external bacteria.
Not taking probiotics
Further, if you’re in the habit of skipping your daily dose of probiotics, then you might be in a world of hurt come flu season. In fact, according to a study published in HHS Public Access, taking probiotics may also even aid in the treatment of illnesses like the flu, by producing substances that aid in the development of the intestinal mucosal defenses system.
Letting stress take over
According to the Cleveland Clinic, letting stress completely take over your body and become a part of your everyday existence will prove to be extremely harmful to your immune system in the long-run. “High stress levels also can cause depression and anxiety, again leading to higher levels of inflammation. In the long-term, sustained, high levels of inflammation point to an overworked, over-tired immune system that can’t properly protect you.” So, in short, high stress levels make you more susceptible to getting the flu virus.
Staying cooped up indoors
Vitamin D should be an essential part of your regimen—whether you’re taking a supplement or heading outdoors to receive it in a more natural way. According to a study published in the Journal of Investigative Medicine, Vitamin D plays an important role in promoting a healthy immune system, lowering your susceptibility to illness and disease.
Keeping your home full of clutter is one thing, but refusing to disinfect the surfaces of your space could put you at risk for contracting the flu virus, as microscopic germs could be lurking under surfaces you’ve neglected to clean. So, make it a habit to keep your space tidy—if not for appearances, then at least for your overall health.
Refusing to cover up
Since cold air carries less water vapor, the colder seasons present the perfect time for the flu virus to spread, since dry air allows smaller particles of airborne illness to spread more effectively, according to BBC News. Additionally, certain viruses die off more easily when you remain at your core body temperature, so keeping warm is especially important during the flu season.
Ingesting echinacea boosts your white blood cell count, ultimately boosting your immunity and overall health. So, especially during flu season, stock up on herbal teas that contain echinacea.
Touching your face often
As a rule of thumb, keep your germ-infested hands away from your face and out of your mouth, according to a study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases. This behavior can easily facilitate a flu diagnosis.
Sharing your treats
Again, sharing your space (and food) with others during the flu season is a sure-fire way to spread germs—even if the other people you’re hanging around have yet to show symptoms, they still may be carrying the virus and it pays to be safe. This is especially the case with food, which, when infected, can easily infect you as well.
Spending more time in high-contact areas
Even though spending most of your time in places like hospitals, schools, and nursing homes can be unavoidable for some, these areas are considered high-risk for contracting the flu virus since they involve “close interpersonal contact,” according to a Healthline report. Other high-risk areas include childcare facilities, college dormitories, military barracks, and office buildings. If you find yourself spending most of your time in one of these places, take the normal precautionary measures like washing your hands often and practicing clean habits in general.
Eating a poor diet
Again, this should go without saying, but maintaining an unhealthy diet, especially one devoid of key nutrients, weakens your body’s defenses, making you much more susceptible to contracting the virus. In fact, overweight or obese people are at a greater risk of getting the flu, as their immune systems are generally weaker than those people with normal BMIs, according to research conducted by the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
You engage in risky sexual behavior
As you already know, engaging in unprotected sexual activity with strangers puts you at a greater risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Not only that, but when you contract the flu as an HIV patient, you’re much more likely to have complications like pneumonia and inflammation of the heart and brain, says the Centers for Disease Control.
You’re not exercising enough
Since maintaining a healthy exercise routine throughout the week is a well-known way to boost your immune system, then it should be a no-brainer that getting up off the couch and into the gym at least three times per week will help decrease your chances of getting the flu.
You have untreated depression
According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety and depression, when left untreated, raises the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the brain, weakening your immune system and preventing it from fighting commons colds and viruses as efficiently.
You’re not up to date with your vaccinations
To be frank: you should really get a flu shot. In fact, in most places, like Walgreens, they’re completely free of charge. Additionally, staying up to date on your vaccinations will keep your immune system at peak performance, allowing it to take a breather from keeping your body safe from other viruses.
Not covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough
You’ve likely heard this your entire life, but we thought that we might as well emphasize it yet again: failing to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze is a sure-fire way to spread germs to everyone else around you. Further, avoid covering your mouth with your hands, as you can easily transmit germs from your hands and on to other objects that people will inevitably touch. To keep your bacteria to yourself, use your elbow to cover up your coughs and sneezes.
In general, according to Health magazine, maintaining any strict diet makes you more susceptible to contracting the flu virus. “Originally we thought the calorie restriction would help improve their immune systems, but we found the opposite was true,” Gardner says. “More calories during flu season helped ward off the virus or if it didn’t, it at least resulted in fewer symptoms and a speedier recovery,” says Elizabeth Gardner, Ph.D., an associate professor in Food Science and Human Nutrition.
Not taking a sick day when you need one
If you’ve gotten into the habit of refusing sick days, even when you truly need them, it could stress out your immune system even further. When you’re feeling under the weather, exerting yourself in the same manner that you would on any day when you’re feeling your best is a sure-fire way to leave your immune system weakened and unable to fight viruses like the flu.