LIKE House Stark used to say, winter is coming, and it’s never been more important to think about our immune systems.
Chilly temperatures are bringing new Covid-19 challenges plus a host of cold and flu germs to battle – but before you head into hibernation, there’s lots you can do to protect yourself and your family from infection over the winter months. We’ve quizzed the experts to find out what we should be doing to stay safe.
Why are the colder months such an immunity challenge?
The likelihood of catching a bug increases over the coldest season for multiple reasons. “First, your immunity is likely to take a dive because you’re exposed to less sunlight, and vitamin D plays a part in your immune system,” says GP Dr Ross Perry.
“There are also lifestyle factors – it’s dark and miserable, so you might be less likely to exercise, and you may drink more alcohol or eat less healthily to cheer yourself up. There’s also the impact of the temperature itself, which can interfere with your body’s response to viruses.
“Cold viruses multiply well in your nostrils, and infected cells there send out signals to recruit white blood cells to fight it off,” says GP Dr Sarah Jarvis.
“But if your nose is very cold, then the blood vessels in it contract, and that can mean the white blood cells can’t get there as effectively.” That’s another reason to wear a face mask – it can also keep your nose warm!
What happens to Covid-19 in winter?
Here’s the bad news: we’re not entirely sure. But scientists are able to make some predictions. “In summer, we have the sun’s UV radiation, which kills viruses, and we have windows open, which dilutes the virus in the air and dries it out quicker when it is on a surface.
“This is why most respiratory viruses are seen in the winter,” says virologist Dr Robert Lambkin-Williams from Virustatic Shield. “As we spend more time indoors and closer together in the wet winter months, like most respiratory viruses, it will spread.”
Your essential bug-fighting kit
- For chilly weather, the washable Virustatic Shield face covering, £20, will keep your neck toasty while providing up to 99% virus protection, thanks to a special antiviral coating.
- Taking echinacea supplements may slightly reduce your chances of catching a cold.
- Try A Vogel Echinaforce Drops, £10.50.
- Reach for ColdZyme, £17.50, mouth spray at the first sign of the snuffles. It’s been clinically shown to help prevent colds from fully developing, as well as reducing the severity of symptoms.
- Vegetology Vitashine 1000iu Vitamin D tablets, £8.95 for 60, are chewable, suitable for vegans and can help maintain a healthy immune system.
- Keep kids healthy with Lloyds Pharmacy Children’s Vitamins ABCDE, £2.69 for 30 – they’ll love the flavoured pastilles.
How can I stay safe?
A weird silver lining of Covid (and goodness knows we could do with one!) is that the measures you’re already following will reduce your risk of catching other bugs, too. “All colds and flus are viral, so the likelihood of transmission is currently reduced by Covid-prevention measures,” says Dr Perry. And social distancing is particularly crucial. “The ‘hands, face, space’ warning is the most important in my view,” says Dr Jarvis.
A deficiency in immune system essential vitamin D has been linked to an increased risk of contracting Covid-19, according to research by the University of Chicago Medical Center, although the NHS says there is not yet enough evidence for this to be relied upon. With less sunlight in the winter and more of us spending time indoors this year, it’s hard for our bodies to produce enough vitamin D to maintain a healthy immune system. “The recommendation is for 10 micrograms each day, but that assumes people are already getting some through sunlight. I suggest 20 micrograms,” says Dr Jarvis.
“There’s also evidence that zinc and selenium can support immunity – you can take daily supplements or include meat, shellfish or certain cereals (for zinc) and Brazil nuts, meat, eggs and fish (for selenium) in your diet.” Cold weather is no excuse for not moving – and happily, the benefits to your health are immediate. Research from the University of Bath found that, in the short-term, daily exercise can help your immune system deal with pathogens, while making it a long-term habit can protect your immunity as you age. A great workout can help promote good circulation, which allows the immune cells to move through the body to tackle infections more easily.
Follow your workout – if you can stand it – with a burst of cold water at the end of your shower. People who regularly do so have been found to take 29% fewer sick days than those who don’t. Scientists at the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam said 90-second bursts of cold water in the morning helped reduce the number of sick days people took off work. There’s also sobering evidence found by Public Health England to recommend getting a flu vaccination, as catching both flu and Covid-19 more than doubles your risk of death. Over-65s, pregnant women, those with underlying health conditions and children up to year seven (or older if they have certain health conditions) can get a vaccination for free.
Do I have low immunity?
While you might feel you get more than your fair share of coughs and colds, it may not be the case that you have a bad immune system.
“It’s rare for anyone to have low immunity unless you have a specific health condition,” says Dr Perry.
“It’s hard to measure your immunity, but most people exist within a normal spectrum. In terms of it not functioning well, stress tends to be the biggest factor.” So no excuses not to book that Zoom yoga class.
How can I manage stress?
As well as your body, your mind matters when it comes to your immune system. “One critically important component that has come to the forefront of the current situation is mental health,” says Dr Ross Walton, immunologist and founder of clinical research company A-IR.
Feelings of isolation and loneliness have been shown to lower antibody responses, so it remains important to stay in touch with loved ones, even if you can’t physically meet up during the pandemic. Stress levels are also a big factor, as stress decreases your lymphocytes (the white blood cells that battle infection).
Over the years, research has found that activities such as playing video games and painting for just 45 minutes – regardless of your skill level – can help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. What’s more, just 10 minutes spent stroking your pets is proven to relax you. A study of students by Ohio State University also revealed hypnosis and relaxation training could improve immunity, so consider meditation or any other activity that you find calms your mind.
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