At this time of year, it can be hard to stay well.
Despite your best efforts to avoid contact with bugs and encourage your immune system to work extra hard, chances are you'll succumb at one point (or two.. or three).
While it's important to pay attention to your health, worrying your way through winter also isn't the answer.
To find out the biggest mistakes people are making when it comes to flu prevention, HuffPost UK Lifestyle spoke to Dr Hasmukh Joshi, vice-chair of the Royal College of GPs, and also discovered useful insights from Pritish Tosh, an assistant professor at the Mayo Clinic's Division of Infectious Diseases.
Assuming The Vaccine Is All You Need
While the flu shot is generally considered your best line of defense, it's not <em>guaranteed</em> protection. "The current influenza vaccine is good, but not perfect," says Tosh. Think of the flu shot like a seatbelt, he says. Vaccinating doesn't mean you <em>can't</em> get the flu, but the outcome will likely be better if you do. "It is possible people who have been vaccinated and get influenza will have less severe disease," says Tosh, so there's no excuse to skip the shot. But you should also take other measures to make sure you <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/15/cold-flu-prevention-natural-immune-boosters_n_2474430.html">stay healthy this season</a>, like getting adequate sleep, maintaining a regular exercise routine, avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth and drinking lots of water.
Covering Your Sneeze With Your Hands
Sure, it's better than spraying those germs directly into the air above your neighbor's cubicle. But when you sneeze into your hands, chances are you then grab a doorknob or a shared phone or touch a keyboard or shake a coworker's hand -- and pass along whatever bug you're hosting. About a decade ago, public health experts started teaching a a new-and-improved version of cough and sneeze etiquette in schools, says Tosh, namely to cover up with a tissue (and dispose of it promptly), instead of using your hands. When a tissue is out of reach, <a href="http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/covercough.htm">go for the crook of your elbow, instead</a>. Even <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zG4hX8TEkAA">Elmo knows</a>!
Washing Your Hands In A Hurry
You already know that hand washing is one of your <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/15/cold-flu-prevention-natural-immune-boosters_n_2474430.html#slide=1984564">best natural defenses against the flu</a> and germs in general. But too many people still aren't scrubbing up to snuff. <a href="http://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/">Healthy hand washing</a> includes lathering up on all sides, between the fingers and under your nails for at least 20 seconds, or about the time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice, according to the CDC's recommendations.
Swearing By Antibacterial Soap
Despite the fact that patients keep requesting antibiotics for their symptoms, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/11/common-flu-myths-busted_n_2451441.html#slide=1968603">colds and flu are spread by <em>viruses</em></a>. And while it's crucial to keep hands clean, expecting an antibacterial soap to protect you is a big mistake. Not only will those suds not prevent you from catching the flu, they may leave "a larger proportion of <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/30/health/30well.html">resistant bacteria</a> behind," according to the New York TImes. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers still make the grade, since they, like regular soap, kill off bacteria more randomly.
Pretending You Aren't Sick
Ignoring that nagging cough or fevery feeling and still going to work or school is a great way to make yourself -- and the people around you -- sicker. You wouldn't want to work in close proximity with someone who has the flu, so don't impose that on your co-workers or classmates. (Not to mention that you're probably <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/15/cold-flu-season-sick-work_n_2124292.html">not doing your best work if you're really feeling lousy</a>.) So when are you allowed back? "If it sounds like they have influenza, people should stay at home until they're no longer having fevers for at least 24 hours," says Tosh.
Relying On Vitamin C
While there's been little research proving that the famed cold-buster can actually prevent you from getting sick, the idea that vitamin C will keep you healthy still lingers. "Research has found no evidence that vitamin C prevents colds," says Dr Hasmukh Joshi, vice-chair of the Royal College of GPs. In 2007, the authors of a review of 30 trials involving 11,000 people concluded that, "regular ingestion of vitamin C has no effect on common cold incidence in the ordinary population". A daily dose of vitamin C did slightly reduce the length and severity of colds. When it comes to flu, one person in three believes that taking vitamin C can cure the flu virus. It can't. "Studies found that vitamin C offers a very, very limited benefit," says Dr Joshi. "I wouldn't recommend it." Information from <a href="http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/coldsandflu/Pages/Preventionandcure.aspx" target="_hplink">NHS Choices</a>.
Guzzling Orange Juice
You're probably reaching for that OJ for its famed vitamin C, which, you now know, may not be the solution you're hoping for. And while you <em>do</em> want to increase fluid intake to both ward off and recover faster from the flu, juice comes with a lot of empty calories. In fact, too much extra sugar can actually <a href="http://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/10-immune-system-busters-boosters">inhibit the immune system</a>, WebMD reported.
Headlines like <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/09/flu-outbreak-in-2013-earliest-worst-decade-18-children-dead_n_2440695.html">"Worst Flu Outbreak In A Decade"</a> instill real fear in us. But most otherwise-healthy people will recover just fine from the flu with plenty of rest, fluids and good nutrition, says Tosh. Panic and anxiety won't do anything to keep you healthy; getting vaccinated, drinking extra fluids and listening to your body will. "Rather than panicking, people should focus on what they can do," he says.
The root, seeds and other parts of echinacea plants are used in herbal remedies that many people believe protect them against colds. There have been a number of studies into echinacea's effect, but no firm conclusions. A review of trials involving echinacea showed that, compared with people who didn't take echinacea, those who did were about 30% less likely to get a cold. However, the studies had varying results and used different preparations of echinacea. It's not known how these compare with the echinacea in shops. This review also showed that echinacea did not reduce the length of a cold when taken on its own. "There is a belief that echinacea aids the immune system, but a survey of studies in 2005 showed that it did not," says Dr Joshi. "I wouldn't recommend that it helps, but if people believe it, they can take it. There's no harm in it." Information from <a href="http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/coldsandflu/Pages/Preventionandcure.aspx" target="_hplink">NHS Choices</a>.
There is some evidence that taking zinc lozenges as soon as cold symptoms appear may reduce how long a cold lasts. However, some trials have found no difference in the duration of colds in people who took zinc compared with those who did not. There has also been research into nasal sprays containing zinc. "Some people believe that the zinc lines the mucosa [the lining of the nose] and stops a cold virus attaching itself to the nose lining," says Dr Joshi. "Unfortunately, this has been found to be no more effective than a placebo." Information from <a href="http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/coldsandflu/Pages/Preventionandcure.aspx" target="_hplink">NHS Choices</a>.
Getting Cold And/Or Wet
The only thing that can cause a cold or flu is a cold or flu virus. Getting cold and/or wet won't give you a cold. However, if you are already carrying the virus in your nose, it might allow symptoms to develop. A study at the Common Cold Centre in Cardiff found that people who chilled their feet in cold water for 20 minutes were twice as likely to develop a cold as those who didn't chill their feet. The authors suggest that this is because some people carry cold viruses without having symptoms. Getting chilled causes blood vessels in the nose to constrict, affecting the defences in the nose and making it easier for the virus to replicate. "Getting a cold from going out in the cold or after washing your hair is a myth," says Dr Joshi. "Colds are common. If the virus is already there and then you go out with wet hair and develop symptoms, it's common to think that is what caused it." Information from <a href="http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/coldsandflu/Pages/Preventionandcure.aspx" target="_hplink">NHS Choices</a>.
So what does work?
The flu vaccine can prevent you from catching flu. Apart from that, the best way to protect yourself from colds and flu is to have a healthy lifestyle. "Eat a healthy diet, take regular exercise and drink plenty of warm drinks in the winter months," says Dr Joshi. "The important thing to remember is that most people are going to catch a cold in winter anyway, because there is no effective cure for cold viruses." Information from <a href="http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/coldsandflu/Pages/Preventionandcure.aspx" target="_hplink">NHS Choices</a>.