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No immunity-boosting routine is foolproof, as many of us who have caught colds, or worse, the flu, can attest to. “The immune system is very complicated,” says Dr. Bryna Warshawsky, a Public Health physician with Public Health Ontario. Eating properly, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly are general strategies to stay healthy, she says. However, here are some surprising things that we’re doing (or not doing) that allow us to catch the viruses that cause colds and flus.
1. Touching your face
Scratching the tip of your nose, resting your chin in your hand, or sweeping a strand of hair away from your lips are all actions you probably don’t think twice about. “People do it often—they don’t even realize it,” says Dr. Warshawsky. However, if your hands have germs on them, they’ll be transferred to your face making you more susceptible to catching a cold. Before you touch your face, ears, eyes or nose, clean your hands with an alcohol based hand sanitizer. “Use a quarter size amount, rub it all over and get the tips of your fingers. It’s much faster and just as effective as soap and water,” says Dr. Warshawsky.
2. Being within two metres of someone with a cold
We all know to keep our distance from the sneezers around us, but do you know how far you need to be to avoid contagion? It’s not at arm’s-length—it’s actually further. “Stay six feet or two metres away from people if they’re sick,” says Dr. Warshawsky. Ill people can carry droplets that will infect you as well.
3. Pressing elevator buttons
Elevator buttons are germy. A 2014 study in Open Medicine journal says that 61 percent of elevator buttons in three Toronto hospitals were colonized with bacteria. Toilets in the hospitals were also swabbed for comparison. Believe it or not, the toilet surfaces had significantly lower colonization prevalence than elevator buttons at 43 percent, according to the study. Bottom line: Use your elbow, or a key or pen to touch the buttons, or clean your hands after an elevator trip.
4. Smoking cigarettes
It’s no secret that smoking is bad, but we often associate it with long-term effects such as an increased risk for lung cancer and emphysema. But smoking actually increases your risk for present-day infection too, says Dr. Warshawsky. Smoking impairs lung function, which means smokers may have a harder time fighting off colds and the flu. It’s always a good time to quit smoking.
5. Not updating your vaccines
Think vaccinations are just for babies and young children. Not so. Speak with your doctor or primary health care practitioner to establish what vaccines you need and when you should get them. Dr. Warshawsky says getting the flu vaccine is important. “The flu vaccine is 60 percent effective, and you should get it each year,” she says. “You never know how bad a flu season it’s going to be.”
6. Drinking too much alcohol
With the advent of winter comes holiday socializing, including hanging out at parties where it’s easy to overindulge in wine and cocktails. Drinking a lot on a single occasion slows your body’s ability to ward off infections—even up to 24 hours after getting drunk, says the U.S. based National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Moderation is key, Dr. Warshawsky says. Try not to overdo it at the holiday party and follow guidelines, such as these from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, to help inform your decisions.