On these cold, dark days of winter, you’re likely spending more time indoors — and in close quarters with others — than you would in the spring or summer. Whether that makes you feel cozy or stir-crazy, it also puts you at a higher risk of catching a cold (or other virus). To find out if there’s a way to avoid getting sick altogether, we asked an internist, an emergency room physician, and a naturopathic doctor what they recommend for staying healthy. To fend off the flu, the number one thing you can do is get vaccinated, but for the common cold and other viruses floating around, read on for the doctors’ suggestions to keep them at bay.
We all know someone who swears by taking a megadose of vitamin C at the first sign of a cold to stop it in its tracks. While Dr. Peter Shearer, chief medical officer at Mount Sinai Brooklyn and an emergency room physician, says the evidence of these home remedies is scant, doctors are generally fine with them as they usually don’t have any side effects. However, as Shearer points out, “There are no scientifically proven boosters for the immune system in the way that people think. The flu vaccine could be thought of as a boost for your immune system because it prepares your immune cells for a real influenza exposure.” So while there are lots of herbal remedies, teas, and lozenges promising to keep you healthy, there are only a few — more on those below — that doctors say are worth trying.
Dr. Judy Tung, an internist at Weill Cornell Medicine & NewYork-Presbyterian says, “Vitamin C and zinc have been intensely studied. The evidence is mixed, but in moderate quantities, they are not harmful. I do sometimes advise my patients to take over-the-counter zinc at the start of a cold to prevent it from getting worse or lasting too long, too.” According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s speculated that zinc works by preventing the rhinovirus — the virus that causes most colds — from multiplying. Tung says, “zinc gluconate lozenges are what I recommend as there may be some additional benefit through the reduction of viral entry from the zinc coating in the back of the throat that you get from lozenges.”
Echinacea is another ingredient that gets tossed around when talking about supplements that’ll ward off a cold. Like vitamin C and zinc, it may help, though Shearer doesn’t think it has any miraculous cold-fighting powers. “Echinacea preparations may reduce the risk of catching a cold and may modestly help treat the common cold,” he says. “Buyers should know that the research isn’t strong.” He also cautions that because supplements aren’t regulated, the pill or tincture you’re taking may not have as much echinacea as its label claims. If you want to try it out, though, singer Doe Paoro uses this echinacea throat spray to preserve her voice.
According to naturopathic doctor Amy Rothenberg, “The majority of our immune system is generated in our gut, so it’s important to focus our attention there.” She explains that probiotic supplements promote “a diverse and robust microbiome,” which helps the body ward off infections. This LoveBug supplement combines probiotic strains with other doctor-approved ingredients like vitamin C, zinc, and echinacea.
All three doctors agree that regular handwashing is one of the best ways of staying germ-free. There’s no need to seek out antibacterial hand soap, so choose one you’re more likely to use, whether because you like the scent, it leaves your hands feeling soft, or it’s just nice to look at. “It has been proven that simple handwashing with soap and water is as effective as using hand sanitizers,” says Rothenberg. The CDC recommends washing your hands for at least 20 seconds, and Rothenberg says to always wash “after being around a person who is symptomatic, before preparing food, [and] before eating.”
For cleaning hands on the go, Shearer says “alcohol-based hand sanitizers are convenient [and] keep bioparticles off your hands.” This doesn’t mean you need to use hospital-grade Purell. Anything with alcohol will work, like this Aesop “rinse-free hand wash,” a favorite of Strategist beauty writer Rio Viera-Newton’s. She says it’s “worth the investment.”
All the things we touch each day, from door knobs to subway poles, are often covered in disease-carrying germs. To minimize these at home or work, Shearer says, “antibacterial wipes are good for highly trafficked shared surfaces.” These Seventh Generation wipes use a botanical disinfectant naturally found in thyme oil, so they’re safe for use around kids and pets.
If you’re already feeling crummy and you’re concerned about not getting others sick, a face mask can protect those around you from any airborne particles you may be coughing or breathing out. Tung says they work best “if the cough is forceful and the people surrounding the individual who is coughing are close, like on a crowded subway. Areas of decreased ventilation – closed windows in cold weather – also concentrate airborne viruses more.” These disposable ones will do and, in black, they could almost be Fashion-y.
The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best acne treatments, rolling luggage, pillows for side sleepers, natural anxiety remedies, and bath towels. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.
Every editorial product is independently selected. If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.