Many of us are already mindful of winter illnesses like seasonal influenza, which the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates kills between 290,000 and 650,000 people per year. Seasonal flu alone is so widespread that we tag most winters as having played host to flu epidemics.
However, winter is a time when respiratory illnesses in general thrive, with significant seasonal increases in everything from common colds to bronchial infections. Gastrointestinal infections such as norovirus also peak during the colder months. In addition to the usual challenges around illnesses that thrive in colder conditions, we’re entering a winter flu season for the first time with COVID-19 very much part of our lives, too.
How can COVID-19 stop you getting sick this winter?
We have lived through almost a year of being told what we can do to reduce the risk of getting COVID-19.
Yet, for many years, adopting better hygiene practices like increased handwashing have been urged by medical professionals as a means of reducing the spread of seasonal flu. One of the challenges associated with reducing the prevalence of seasonal flu is always that it is young children who spread it most, who are both:
- Prone to picking up germs and viruses
- Less likely than anyone else to regularly wash their hands unless prompted
However, the way our lives have changed in 2020 means young children are as engaged as anyone in the importance of maintaining exceptional hand hygiene. Therefore, by continuing to diligently follow specific hygiene practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we may also be able to reduce occurrences of other winter illnesses.
On top of following the COVID-19 guidance to which we’ve all become accustomed, here are three vital things you can do to help yourself avoid getting sick this winter.
1. Get vaccinated
The United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that flu vaccination can reduce the risk of acquiring a flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population. The CDC also estimates that over the 2018 – 19 winter, its vaccination programme prevented:
- 4 million flu illnesses
- 3 million flu-related medical appointments
- 58,000 flu-related hospitalisations
- 3,500 flu-related deaths
It’s vital to note that flu vaccines don’t guarantee total immunity, for a couple of reasons:
- Each seasonal flu vaccine is essentially a trial aiming to match a vaccine to known new mutations of the illness. That's why you need to get a flu jab every year. It also explains why countries, even with widespread flu vaccination programmes, can see a huge variance in flu cases and deaths from one year to the next.
- There are four different types of seasonal flu.
However, even if you're not 100% immune, flu vaccination can reduce the severity of symptoms you experience, and significantly reduce the risk of hospital admission and death because of flu. Considering the burden health services will face this winter, having a flu vaccination could reduce these risks even more. Furthermore, scientists in the UK say that having both flu and COVID-19 at the same time vastly increases the risk of death.
Depending on your location, you may qualify for a free seasonal flu vaccination if you're in a high-risk group. If you don’t qualify for a free vaccination, they are generally available for a small fee.
2. Spend time outdoors
One of the most significant reasons why illnesses spread quicker and easier during winter is that we all spend more time indoors. A 2014 study by Columbia University, reported here by the BBC, found that in dry, indoor air, particles from sneezing and coughing broke into smaller pieces. This occurrence meant those particles could stay in the air for longer, increasing the chances of being inhaled by others.
In contrast, outdoors, in more humid conditions, those same particles are more likely to stay intact and fall to the ground.
Spending time outdoors will help you avoid getting sick in many ways:
- Use your time outdoors to exercise. Many studies have shown that regular, moderate exercise can reduce upper-respiratory-tract infections by nearly 50%. Just don't overdo it; overexercise has the potential to compromise your immune system, so 20 – 30 minutes of walking every day will do the trick.
- Maximise your time outdoors to enjoy what limited sunlight there is during the winter months. Sunlight is our primary source of vitamin D, which can both help prevent and treat colds and flu. Some studies also suggest additional vitamin D supplementation during winter can reduce the chances of acquiring a cold or flu illness by up to 70%.
For the times when it is too cold to spend too long outdoors, consider investing in a humidifier to keep the air in your home moist and prevent infectious particles hanging around.
3. Optimise your sleeping pattern
Our bodies do much of their best work when we are asleep. If we deprive our bodies of sleep or only take low-quality sleep, we can weaken our immune system hugely. The Sleep Foundation even claims that poor quality sleep can reduce the effectiveness of seasonal flu vaccines.
How much sleep we need can vary significantly between individuals. However, whether you need six hours or ten hours per day, the good sleep habits to get into remain the same:
- Have a consistent bedtime every evening. Set your bedtime depending on when you need to get up and how much sleep you find you need. Set yourself a long-term goal of being so consistent you no longer need an alarm to wake up on time.
- Avoid blue light before bed. Rather than using blue light filters to ensure you can continue using your smartphone or tablet, try to skip screens altogether. Use wind-down features to remind you when it's time to turn devices off or put them away and lose yourself in a book before bedtime. Turn this into part of a pre-bedtime routine.
- If you find it easy to fall asleep but find you often wake throughout the night, you might need to consider factors like the quality of your pillows and mattress or the temperature in your bedroom. You might also need to consider how close to bedtime you eat, and what you're eating when you do so.
How to avoid getting sick this winter
Aside from seasonal specific aspects like vaccinations, the easiest way to avoid getting sick in the winter is to safeguard your health throughout the rest of the year! However, if the challenges of 2020 have seen you take your eye off the ball and you’ve struggled to get back on track, getting a flu jab, spending more time outside, and adopting healthy sleep routines are all things you can start doing today that will help protect yourself from winter illnesses.
It also pays to ensure you’re eating healthily, moderating your alcohol consumption, and actively looking to manage your mental wellbeing, especially at work.
Stay safe this winter!