Depending on where you live, the weather may be showing little signs that spring isn't too far off. That's a hopeful signal, especially for those living in the areas that have been hardest hit by severe winter storms. Unfortunately, no matter what the weather does, we're still in the middle of what's commonly known as "flu season."

Seasonal flu is a contagious respiratory illness that is active across most of the nation in the fall and winter months, presenting the most danger for those at high risk of complications of flu. Most healthcare professionals recommend getting a flu shot* to increase immunity to at least a couple strains of the influenza virus, however, there are a wide variety of opinions on the efficacy of the vaccine.

Even if you manage to dodge the influenza bullet, there are plenty of other ways you might end up under the weather this winter. For those who live in colder climes, more time spent indoors and in proximity to others means contagious colds and other sickness can make the rounds, sometimes more than once in a short amount of time. And anyone with kids knowns how easy it is for one of them to bring a sniffle home from school and spread it to the whole family within days. Some of this is to be expected, but it doesn't have to be inevitable.

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There are many methods for reducing your likelihood of catching the flu or other illnesses going around this winter. Some are common sense and others may be less obvious. Here are just a few intentional steps you can take to keep yourself and your family healthy in the weeks and months ahead.

  1. Wash your hands well and frequently with soap and water. Don't forget your nails and lower arms.
  2. Wash your reusable water bottle or coffee mug with soap and hot water every day, even if you're the only person using it.
  3. Avoid close contact with those who are sick.
  4. Avoid touching your nose, mouth, or eyes with unwashed hands.
  5. Cover your mouth (and teach your kids to do the same) when coughing or sneezing, using the inside of your arm or crook of your elbow rather than your hands.
  6. Stay active to increase circulation of immune cells in the body. Regular exercise significantly lowers your chances of illness.
  7. Especially when someone in your home is sick, periodically wipe surfaces with antibacterial spray (can be a non-toxic formulation) to prevent the transfer of germs.
  8. If you begin to exhibit flu symptoms, visit your doctor as soon as you can. He or she may be able to administer antiviral medications, which can lessen the length and severity of illness.
  9. Use a neti pot or nasal saline every day to reduce exposure to bacteria and viruses that enter through your nose.
  10. Avoid sugar, alcohol, and stress. All of these depress the immune system.
  11. Make sure you get enough sleep. Lack of rest decreases immunity.
  12. Take Vitamin C to boost immunity.
  13. Take a Vitamin D supplement. Sun exposure diminishes significantly during the winter months, and Vitamin D is an excellent immune booster.
  14. Take a probiotic and/or consume fermented foods (kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, etc.) every day. 70% of your immune system resides in the gut (digestive system). A myriad of factors can negatively affect or even destroy the natural bacteria (or normal flora) that lives there, making you more susceptible to infection. Probiotics and fermented foods help keep normal flora balanced.

You may not feel you can incorporate every one of these changes into your life, however, you will likely find that adding even three to five of them will improve your ability to fight off infection. During this time of year, when so many people around you are coming down with illness, these are great ways for you to go on the offensive. Take care!

*If you are a Liberty HealthShare member and you get a flu shot, don't forget that the associated cost is eligible for sharing and not subject to the Annual Unshared Amount (AUA).