2020 may have upended every aspect of normalcy we both love and loathe, but one thing remains the same: With the fall comes cold and flu season. And this year may be worse than ever if cases of the flu and COVID-19 both surge, creating what Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has repeatedly warned will be the potential for a “twindemic.”
Luckily, there are precautions each of us can take to minimize the chances of getting sick, with either the flu or COVID-19, and increase the chances of recovering faster if we’re unlucky enough to catch one of the many viruses that’ll be swarming in just a month or two.
“You can control your own destiny by keeping your immune function strong so that should you become exposed to a viral pathogen, your body is poised to defend itself,” says Charles Elder, M.D., primary care internist and physician lead for the complementary and integrative medicine program at Kaiser Permanente Northwest.
8 Ways to Prepare for Flu Season During the COVID-19 Pandemic
1. Get Your Flu Shot
The influenza vaccine lowers your risk of getting the flu by 40 to 60 percent on any given year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (That’s assuming the circulating viruses match the strains they crafted the formula for.)
Yet only 45 percent of people over the age of 18 got their shot in 2018/19—and most of those numbers were in people above 50, reports the CDC.
Part of the reason is access. Another is skepticism: People don’t think vaccines are safe (they are, all our experts assure). And a huge part is because most people don’t think a 40 to 60 percent chance of protection sounds very high, so getting the shot isn’t worth the effort.
“Even though it’s not 100-percent effective at preventing the flu, some protection is better than none,” says Sandra Kesh, M.D., deputy medical director and infectious disease specialist at Westmed Medical Group in Westchester, NY.
For starters, the vaccine lowers your chances of getting influenza by roughly half. “It’s important to remember the flu is a formidable infection in its own right. Influenza can cause inflammation of the lungs, heart, brain, and other organs, leading to respiratory failure, encephalitis, heart failure, sepsis, and death, in the worst cases,” Kesh explains.
At the very least, it knocks you into a deep hole of snot, aches, and pure misery for at least a week, if not longer.
What’s more, lowering your chances of getting influenza lowers your chances of getting everything from a nasty cold to the novel coronavirus itself. “Anytime your body is infected with a virus, there’s the potential for you to be more vulnerable to other infections, including COVID-19,” Kesh explains.
To top it off, if you do get the flu despite having got the vaccine, that shot lowers the chances of you developing complications from the virus, including things like pneumonia.
Everyone should get the flu vaccine unless your doctor advises you not to, Elder adds (the main exception being if you’ve had a severe allergic reaction to the shot in the past). Anyone who’s pregnant, very old (65+), or very young (between 6 months and 5 years old) should absolutely get the shot.
And the sooner the better—it takes about two weeks to build antibodies from the shot and influenza activity in the U.S. starts circulating in November, so get your shot by the end of October at the latest, adds Elder.
Talk to your employer about if they’re offering any kind of vaccine program, even out of the office, like the CDC director is currently encouraging companies to do. But you can also schedule your shot at a local pharmacy, doctor’s office, and even in some schools.
2. Keep Exercising—but Don’t Go too Hard
Working out regularly (at a moderate intensity) improves your immune defense and lowers your risk of getting sick, reports a 2019 review in the Journal of Sport and Health Science. In fact, a single workout boosts your immune fortification. Try to get your heart rate up slightly for at least 30 minutes a day, even just for a walk.
To bolster your immune system to provide a strong defense against the flu and COVID-19, cut cut back on the HIIT and two-a-days for the season: The same analysis points out that an athlete’s at a much higher risk of getting sick during periods of intense training and competition. “Exercise should remove stress from, not create stress for, the physiology,” Elder adds.
3. Keep Stress Under Control
“High levels of stress and anxiety can make us more vulnerable to viral infections,” Elder points out. Meditation and mindfulness are two of the best-known stress reducers. If you don’t already have a regular practice, start with this 10-Minute Meditation Session for Beginners.
Even small actions to keep a positive mindset can help keep stress from getting to you, adds Nicole Avena, P.hD., visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University. Her go-to: When a situation is exhausting or annoying, try and list three good things about it. Maybe you had to take off work to help your brother-in-law move again, but at least it made your partner happy, you got a workout in, and you helped someone.
4. Up Your Produce Intake
“Micronutrient deficiencies can have an impact on how well your body is able to defend against colds and flu,” says Avena. “Food in general can be your best ally when it comes to keeping your immune system strong and staying healthy.”
We don’t have definitive data on which vitamins and minerals affect your immune system most, but aiming to focus on getting a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in a day will up your fortification. Avena adds that eating foods rich in prebiotics (that’s garlic, onions, asparagus, bananas, oats, apples, flaxseed, and seaweed) can help maintain a healthy gut environment which is crucial to health, while antioxidants (walnuts, pecans, salmon, berries, leafy greens, ginger, and herbs) fight against oxidative stress that can damage immune cells.
Fresh produce is always best, but if that isn’t available for you, a multivitamin can help deliver crucial micronutrients. (Avena likes clean brands Vitafusion and Frunutta.)
5. Spice It Up
“Many common household spices possess immunomodulatory properties, which help support your immune system,” Elder says. Largely, this follows the same reasoning as eating more whole foods and produce: Spices help to promote proper digestive function and are rich in antioxidants, helping to establish a strong and healthy immune system. Most also have their own beneficial features. Cumin and turmeric, for instance, have been shown to have antibacterial and antifungal properties, Elder says. He advises including healthy spices—like cumin, turmeric, coriander, ginger and fennel—in your daily diet.
6. Sip on Warm, Sugar-free Drinks
Staying hydrated is key to giving your organs all the necessary tools to fight off infections, like the flu and COVID-19, and keep you healthy. But come fall, trade cold beverages for warm ones: In addition to the latter being far more soothing (good for stress), Ayurvedic tradition—the indigenous healthcare system of India—follows that anything cold or sweet (especially both) will increase “kapha” dosha, which is the physiologic principle that promotes mucus promotion, Elder explains.
Besides being uncomfortable, excess mucus in the respiratory tract is a sign of imbalance—things are starting to get off track. “It’s a sign we may be heading for, and are in a state more vulnerable to, trouble,” Elder adds.
7. Get Strict About Sleep
Proper sleep is one of the top immune boosters noted by all three experts. “Sleep is crucial to keeping your immune system healthy and restoring balance to your body overall—especially when the weather gets cold and the relaxation of summer comes to an end,” Avena explains.
Aim for a consistent 7 to 8 hours a night, but if you wake up a lot in the night or are tired in the morning still, add another 30 to 60 minutes. “Quality counts and if you’re not getting a full, restful 7 to 8 hours, you’re not helping your immune health,” she adds.
Also, try to go to bed early (10 p.m. is ideal) and wake up early—this syncs with your natural circadian rhythm, taking away the physiological stress that late nights can lead to, Elder adds.
8. Wash Your Hands
The daily hygiene of our pandemic lives is actually the recommended hygiene to prevent all viruses, including the cold and flu. Hand washing, mask wearing, and social distancing are incredibly important if you don’t want to get sick this season with either the flu or COVID-19, Kesh reminds.