The changing seasons affect our body’s natural barriers to viruses. The dry, cold air and a lack of sunlight reduce our ability to stave off respiratory infections like influenza and the coronavirus during the winter.
So, what can we do to beat viruses during the winter months? Read our guide on 20 tips for fighting viruses below.
How cold weather makes it harder for us to fight respiratory infections
We now understand that germs and environments we inhabit change as the seasons’ cycle, making people more or less prone to catch a virus.
Viruses thrive in winter conditions
Based on our previous experiences with seasonal viruses, colds and flu, public health officials understand that as the cold weather forces people to move indoors, they become closer together, thus increasing airborne transmission.
Lower temperatures and low humidity levels keep viruses stable and infectious for longer. Lower temperatures slow down viruses breaking down, meaning respiratory droplets can float around for longer, infecting more people.
Lower humidity levels evaporate smaller-sized virus droplets, making it easier for them to come into contact with environments that can inactivate them. However, if the droplets are smaller, they become inhaled by people. They immediately become dissolved into a new host airway.
Sadly, low temperature and humidity levels are precisely what we get in the winter months.
Breathing colder, drier air changes how the immune system operates. Low humidity dampens the body’s sticky first line of defence: mucus.
Your airways are lined with a substance and, below that, with cilia, tiny finger-like body parts that trap foreign pathogens together with the mucus; however, if the mucus becomes too dry in winter, its ability to trap pathogens decreases, making us prone to more respiratory infections.
Lack of sunshine
The onset of winter brings shorter days and less sunshine, meaning more of us are less likely to spend time outdoors, where we soak up vitamin D. Vitamin D plays a vital role in modulating our immune responses, affecting hundreds of chemical pathways involved with bolstering our immune defences.
Long, dark seasons
It’s not that we suffer from more infections in the winter and less in the summer. Historically, measles epidemics were widespread in the spring, and polio hit hardest in summer; flu is more common in the winter months.
Suppose you’re in a country that experiences colder, darker winters. In that case, you can plan for what types of viruses are more likely to be around and for how long, being more aware of their presence.
It’s why flu jabs are offered each year to those in high-risk groups. Up to five million people catch the flu each season, and some 250,000 die from it. Part of its lethality comes from the flu virus changing so quickly that the body is rarely prepared for next season’s strain.
Viruses spread faster during colder, winter months
Cold air protects viruses because the cold temperatures allow the virus’s outer layer to harden into a ‘rubbery gel.’ This protects the virus, allowing it to transmit better or spread.
Colder and drier conditions increase the spread of germs because viruses can remain airborne for longer, thus increasing the possibility of infecting another person.
In dry, cold air, droplets remain smaller and lighter, allowing them to spread further. However, in more humid conditions, droplets become larger and heavier, making them fall to the ground faster, and lowering the possibility of infection.
Alternatively, hotter temperatures are more likely to kill viruses because they melt their envelope, making transmission more difficult.
Aside from virus properties themselves, many viruses spread in cold temperatures; we stay inside in small spaces together and touch the same objects.
So, what can we do to beat viruses during the winter months?
Sadly, it’s inevitable that we will catch a virus at some point during the winter. However, there are certain tips that you can use to prevent or beat viruses during the winter months. Here are 20 of our best ways to beat viruses during winter.
20 ways to beat viruses during the winter months
1. Take vitamins
As mentioned above, your vitamin D levels will lower during winter and stop your body from fighting off colds. Taking vitamin D will help reduce the likelihood of getting a respiratory infection.
2. Eat yoghurt
People who consumed Greek yoghurt or probiotics with live cultures actually had better resistance to cold and flu viruses. During the winter months, consider topping up your natural Greek yoghurt intake.
3. Meditation and mindfulness
Meditating trains you to remain focused and calm, which helps alleviate the stress that can leave you vulnerable to infection. Being in a good place mentally may positively affect your immune system. It reduces stress and anxiety, leaving your body in better shape to fight potential viruses.
4. Drink tea
Try to reduce your black coffee and brew some green tea. A green tea ingredient called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) can damage virus particles and stop them from entering your body.
5. Get vaccinated if offered
If you are offered a flu or COVID jab from your doctor, then take it. Even if another strain infects you, a vaccinated person will experience lesser symptoms or spread less to others.
6. Use a virus-killing air purifier
Using a virus-killing air purifier will inactivate respiratory viruses before they enter your body. Although it is not possible to wear one all the time, you can wear it around your home when others are in close proximity or at work where you come into contact with others who may be infected with viruses and pathogens.
7. Keep your nose warm
Obviously, it would be best if you wrapped warm during the winter months but also pay more attention to keeping your nose warm. The cilia in your sinus and nasal cavities trap and remove viral pathogens. Still, the rate at which the cilia move is affected by temperature.
When cilia are warmer, they beat faster and thus work better at removing pathogens. If your nose is cold, they beat more slowly, thus do not work as fast. So, if you spend a lot of time in the cold, try and keep your nose warm. One way is to wear your face mask outside during the COVID pandemic or wear a scarf around your face (if you can breathe normally, that is).
8. Reduce your alcohol intake
Drinking too much weakens your immune defences, making you vulnerable to infections. Drinking also can induce fever and increase inflammation. With the holiday season upon us, be mindful of how merry you wish to get, especially around others in the same household!
9. Keep nasal moisture levels constant
It isn’t enough to keep your nose warm; you should take care of its moisture too. Suppose your nasal passages dry out due to the dier, colder winters. In that case, the mucus dries out faster, too, reducing the likelihood of trapping respiratory pathogens. Use a saline spray to keep your nasal passages moist throughout the winter months.
10. Exercise where you can, even if you feel unwell
Moderate exercise switches on your immune response, aiding to tackle any viruses that may be in your body. Even if unwell, you should continue light exercise, unless, of course, you are entirely bedridden, then naturally rest!
11. East more fish
Increasing your omega-3 intake may increase the production and activity of white blood cells, which further strengthens your immune system which can help protect against certain infections.
12. Use menthol and eucalyptus
When you have a cold, you may reach for some cough drops or anti-fever powder to make into a hot drink. Most likely, they will contain menthol or eucalyptus because either can help relieve congestion and soothe a cough. Studies are ongoing about the possible antiviral impact of menthol and eucalyptus oil.
13. Eat/drink ginger
Fresh ginger can inhibit respiratory syncytial virus (a bug that in severe cases can lead to bronchiolitis or pneumonia) from attaching to cells and may even reduce its replication ability. Grate some ginger in some hot water to make a ginger tea or if that is too much for you, add it to your next stir-fry with some vegetables and garlic.
14. Wash hands well
It takes a good clean with soap and water to rub a virus off your skin, meaning at least 20 seconds at the sink and thorough drying. Wet hands will likely spread more viruses than drier ones. Use a hand sanitiser as a backup if you want to ensure virus-free hands.
15. Do some yoga
Doing some yoga stretches may help boost your immune defences, better preparing the body to fight illnesses like colds and the flu. Yoga is a perfect combination of physical activity and relaxation that increases saliva levels and breaks down invading pathogens.
16. Sleep better
Natural, healthy sleep is where our bodies begin to shut down and repair. The right amount of sleep is pivotal if we wish to continue to bolster our immune systems. So you get a better night’s sleep, consider making your room darker at night, remove distractions or lower the intensity of the light bulbs used, so you get to sleep faster.
17. Don’t Smoke
Time to take a permanent cigarette break. Smoking damages the lungs leaving your body more vulnerable to respiratory infections. It may feel warm in the winter lighting up, but simultaneously what further respiratory damage are you doing to your body?
18. Avoid secondhand smokers
Don’t smoke, great. However, do not hang around those who do. Secondhand smoke can still block the nasal cilia, which means it takes longer to clear virus particles, increasing your vulnerability to respiratory viruses.
19. Use honey
If you’re not a lover of green tea or ginger, then add honey to sweeten it. Not only does it aid with the taste, but honey has properties that aid with reducing harmful bacteria in the body.
20. Use herbs in your cooking
Herbs have long been used for centuries to treat ailments. Adding rosemary to a dish means you’re also sprinkling in an antiviral ingredient: carnosic acid. This compound helps shield your body from a respiratory syncytial virus by interfering with its ability to infect a host and replicate.
Cold air does not kill viruses
Unfortunately, cold air does not kill viruses. Different viruses have different properties, but in general, viruses are very durable pathogens that can survive even the coldest of temperatures.
Many viruses even thrive in cold air. Influenza (the flu) and rhinoviruses (the cause of the common cold) are two viruses that flourish in cold weather, so it’s no wonder the winter months are cold and flu season — plenty of proof that cold air isn’t killing germs.
By mid-November, the annual flu and cold season have begun (if you live in the Northern Hemisphere). And more recently, we have to add the potential impact of increased coronavirus infections if we remain indoors due to the colder temperatures.
With so many viruses around us, you would be forgiven for thinking of just ‘living with viruses’ as there is not much we can do to change the seasons or newer virus outbreaks. With prevention better than cure, these tips in this article are ways you can prepare the body to beat viruses during the winter months and boost your immune system.