The changing seasons affect our bodies’ natural barriers to viruses – the dry, cold air and a lack of sunlight reduce our ability to stave off respiratory infections like influenza and coronavirus in the wintertime.
So, what can we do to beat viruses during the winter months? Read our guide with 20 tips for fighting viruses below.
How winter weather makes it harder for us to fight respiratory viral infections
We now understand that both germs and the environments we inhabit change with the seasons, making people more or less likely to catch a virus at various times. Based on our existing experiences with seasonal viruses, colds and flu, public health officials understand that as the cold weather forces people to move indoors, they spend more time closer together, thus increasing airborne transmission.
Viruses thrive in low temperatures and humidity levels
Lower temperatures and humidity levels keep viruses stable and infectious for longer, and unfortunately low temperature and humidity levels are precisely what we get in the winter months. Lower temperatures slow down the breaking down of viruses, meaning respiratory droplets can float around for longer and infect more people. Meanwhile, lower humidity levels result in smaller-sized viral droplets being more easily inhaled and therefore absorbed into the airways of new hosts.
Wintry air weakens our defenses
Breathing colder, drier air changes the way your immune system operates. Low humidity dampens the body’s sticky first line of defense: mucus. Your airways are lined with this substance and, below it with cilia, which are tiny finger-like body parts that trap foreign pathogens in combination with the mucus; however, if the mucus becomes too dry in the winter, its ability to trap pathogens decreases, making us more prone to respiratory infections.
A lack of sunshine reduces vitamin D production
The onset of winter brings shorter days and less sunshine, meaning we’re less likely to spend time outdoors soaking up the sun, which helps us produce vitamin D. Vitamin D plays a vital role in modulating our immune responses, affecting hundreds of chemical pathways involved with bolstering our defenses.
Our skin produces vitamin D by absorbing ultraviolet B rays from the sun. We can also obtain it through foods like fatty fish or fortified milk, but sunlight is important for boosting our levels. Healthy vitamin D levels are associated with lower risks for inflammatory diseases like type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and respiratory infections.
Long, dark seasons create the perfect environment for some pathogens
It’s not the case that we suffer from more infections in the winter and less in the summer. Historically, measles epidemics were widespread in the springtime, while polio hit hardest in summer. The flu, on the other hand, is more common in the winter months.
Suppose you’re in a country that experiences colder, darker winters. In that case, you can plan and prepare for which types of viruses are more likely to be around and for how long thanks to being aware of their presence.
This is 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 the colder winter months
Cold air protects viruses because the cold temperatures allow the virus’ outer layer to harden into a “rubbery gel”. This protects the virus, allowing it to be transmitted more easily. Colder and drier conditions also increase the spread of viruses because they can remain airborne for longer, thus increasing the possibility of infecting another person.
In dry, cold air, the 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.
Additionally, hotter temperatures are more likely to kill viruses because they melt their envelopes, making transmission more difficult. Aside from the properties of the viruses themselves, another reason that many viruses spread in cold temperatures is that we stay inside more, spending time together in small spaces and touching the same objects.
Here are 20 ways to beat viruses during the winter
So, what can we do to beat viruses during the winter months? Sadly, it’s likely that most of us will catch a virus at some point during the winter. However, there are plenty of tips you can try to avoid a viral infection in the wintertime.
1. Take vitamins
As mentioned above, your vitamin D levels will reduce during winter, making it harder for your body to fight off colds and other airborne infections. Taking vitamin D will help reduce your likelihood of contracting a respiratory infection.
2. Eat Greek yogurt
In a study, people who consumed Greek yogurt or probiotics containing live cultures actually showed better resistance to cold and flu viruses. During the winter months, consider topping up your intake of natural Greek yogurt.
3. Practice meditation and mindfulness
Being in a good place mentally can positively affect your immune system. Meditating trains you to remain focused and calm, which helps alleviate the stress and anxiety that can make you vulnerable to infection, leaving your body in better shape to fight potential viruses.
4. Drink green 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, it is advised that you take it. Even if another strain infects a vaccinated person, they will experience lesser symptoms and be less likely to transmit the infection to others.
6. Use an personal air purifier
Using a wearable air purifier for viruses like Wear A+ will trap respiratory viruses in the air before they can enter your body. Although it’s not possible to wear a personal air purifier at all times, you can use it around the home when others are in close proximity or at work where you come into contact with others who may be infected with viruses and other pathogens.
These devices can be used year-round, which is especially beneficial for those with compromised immune systems or suffering from long covid symptoms. Wear A+ eliminates viral particles by drawing in surrounding air and passing it through a powerful H12 HEPA filter, which also removes allergens and pollutants to create a “shield” of clean air around the user’s airways.
Respiray’s personal air purifier works very well with airborne allergies such as hay fever, pet dander, mold, and dust allergies. This allows you to simultaneously protect yourself against both viruses and allergies while breathing clean, non-polluted air.
7. Keep your nose warm
Obviously, it’s best to wrap up and keep your whole body warm during the winter months, but it’s especially important to pay attention to keeping your nose warm. The cilia in your sinuses and nasal cavities trap and remove viral pathogens – and the rate at which the cilia move is affected by temperature.
When the cilia in your nose are warmer, they beat faster and thus remove pathogens more effectively. At colder temperatures on the other hand, they beat more slowly and their effectiveness is reduced. So, if you spend a lot of time in the cold, try to keep your nose warm. One way of doing this is to wear a face mask or wrap a scarf around your face while outside (as long as you can still breathe normally this way, of course).
8. Keep nasal moisture levels constant
It isn’t enough to keep your nose warm; you should take care of its moisture levels, too. If your nasal passages dry out in the cold, dry winter, the mucus will dry out faster too, reducing its likelihood of trapping respiratory pathogens. Using a saline spray will help to keep your nasal passages moist throughout the winter months.
9. Reduce your alcohol intake
Drinking too much weakens your immune defenses, making you vulnerable to infections. Alcohol can also 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!
10. Exercise when you can, even if you feel unwell
Moderate exercise switches on your immune response, aiding its ability to tackle any viruses that may be present in your body. Even if unwell, you should continue with light exercise – unless, of course, you are entirely bedridden or have been advised against this by your doctor, in which case you should rest!
11. East more fish
Increasing your intake of foods rich in omega-3, such as fish or flaxseeds, may increase both the production and activity of white blood cells, further strengthening your immune system. This can help to protect you against certain infections.
12. Use menthol and eucalyptus
When you have a cold, you may reach out for cough drops or a powder sachet to make into a hot drink. Most likely, these products will contain menthol or eucalyptus, because either can help relieve congestion and soothe a cough. Studies are ongoing about the possible antiviral impacts of menthol and eucalyptus oils.
13. Eat or 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 into hot water to make a ginger tea, or if that’s too much for you, add it to your next stir-fry with some vegetables and garlic.
14. Wash your hands well
It takes a good thorough clean with soap and water to rid your skin of a virus; this means at least 20 seconds at the sink, followed by careful drying as wet hands will be more likely to cause viruses to spread than drier ones. You can also use a hand sanitizer as a backup if you want to ensure your hands stay virus free.
15. Get into yoga
Doing some yoga stretches may help to boost your immune defenses, 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. Try to get better sleep
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. To help you get to sleep faster and enjoy a better night’s slumber, consider making your room darker at night, removing distractions or lowering the intensity of the lightbulbs used.
17. Quit smoking if you can
There’s no bad time to take a permanent cigarette break. Smoking damages the lungs, leaving your body more vulnerable to respiratory infections. Lighting up may feel like it gives you warmth in the winter, but it’s important to consider what further respiratory damage you’re doing to your body.
18. Avoid second-hand smoke where possible
If you don’t smoke, that’s great. But what happens if you hang around with those who do? Second-hand smoke can still block the nasal cilia, meaning it will take you longer to clear virus particles, increasing your vulnerability to respiratory viruses.
19. Use honey
f you’re not a fan of drinking green tea or ginger, you can add honey to sweeten them. Not only will it help with the taste, but honey also has properties that aid in reducing harmful bacteria in the body. Some findings suggest that honey loses these and other healing properties when heated, so it’s advisable to make sure you’re only adding it to warm or cool foods and drinks, not hot ones.
20. Use herbs in your cooking
Various herbs have been used for centuries to treat ailments. Sprinkling some rosemary into a dish means you’re also adding an antiviral ingredient: carnosic acid. This compound helps shield your body from respiratory syncytial virus by interfering with its ability to infect a host and replicate.
Cold air does not kill viruses
Different viruses have different properties, but in general they are very durable pathogens that can survive even the coldest of temperatures. In fact, many viruses even thrive in cold air – influenza (the flu) and rhinoviruses (which cause the common cold) are two types that flourish in colder weather, so it’s no wonder the winter months are known as cold and flu season – proof positive that cold air doesn’t kill these germs. By mid-November, the annual flu and cold seasons have begun in the Northern Hemisphere, and more recently we’ve also had to consider the potential impact of increased coronavirus infections.
With so many viruses around us, you’d be forgiven for deciding to just “give up and deal with them”, as there isn’t really much we can do to change the seasons or avoid new viral outbreaks. However, with prevention being better than cure, the tips in this article provide some ideas you can try to boost your immune system and prepare your body to fend off viruses during the winter months.