Winter’s cold and flu season can slow you down and make you feel wary of every sniffle and sneeze. And unfortunately, there’s no way to avoid exposure to illnesses, aside from never leaving your house. But there are a few simple and realistic ways to help you stay healthy. 

Douglas A. Drevets, MD, chief of infectious diseases at OU Health and a regent’s professor with the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine in OKC, explains that instead of trying to boost your immune system, you should focus on how to prevent damaging it. 

“For example, heavy drinking, smoking and persistent lack of sleep are never good for you, and these should be avoided, particularly during the long winter months,” says Drevets. “It’s reasonable to take a multivitamin year-round to avoid vitamin D deficiency and it’s good to remember to wash your hands frequently.”

He says many respiratory viruses, such as influenza, RSV and the common cold, circulate predominantly in the colder months due to viruses being more stable in colder and drier air. 

“Also, during the winter we are indoors more and therefore in closer proximity to other people,” he says. “If you have a choice, avoid tight spaces where there are a lot of people coughing. A good example would be avoiding a crowded elevator. Opt for the stairs.”

It’s also important to receive the appropriate vaccinations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this flu season has resulted in 20 million illnesses, 210,000 hospitalizations and 13,000 deaths. 

Drevets recommends getting the influenza vaccine in October or November to allow the vaccine time to build antibodies before the season begins peaking in December. 

“There is some decrease in efficacy by February or March, but it’s more likely because of changes in circulating viruses as opposed to decreases in antibody levels,” he says. “Different kinds of influenza viruses circulate every year. Early in the season, a particular strain may be the predominant one, but later in the year, it may be a different one. How good the vaccine works is dependent on whether it is a match for that particular virus.”

Along with the flu vaccine, he says individuals should stay up-to-date with the pneumococcal vaccine if they are within the age group or risk group that’s eligible. The CDC currently recommends the pneumococcal vaccination for all children younger than five years old and all adults 65 years or older. Other children and adults with certain medical conditions may also qualify. Ask your doctor if you meet the current recommended criteria.  

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