During Christmas week of 2016, I came down with the flu. Most days, I spent curled in a fetal position, alternately sweating my face off and shivering like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining.
The following Christmas, I got sick again. That time, it was an exhausting mystery illness that knocked me out through the New Year.
This time around, I’d like to stay relatively healthy over the holidays—though I know it can be tough. Not only does December kick off flu season, but winter is peak time for upper respiratory issues, strep throat, and norovirus, better known as the stomach flu.
There’s no single cause for these illnesses, either; stress, holiday activities, and travel all factor in. For the latter two, the main culprit is being around a lot of other people, many of whom are sick themselves.
That said, it’s well worth trying to stave off at least some of the germs, by following these simple rules.
At a party
You know that viruses like the common cold and flu are easily transmitted by coughs. But steering clear of the guest hacking up a lung in the corner is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to avoiding illness.
Flu and cold viruses can live on surfaces for anywhere from 24 hours to a week, and hard materials like steel and plastic are especially friendly to these pesky germs.
So consider skipping food people dip their fingers into, like chips and salsa, and try not to touch railings, doorknobs, shared towels and other high-traffic areas for hands.
Even more important, though, is keeping your hands off your face. One study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene found we touch our eyes, nose, or lips about 16 times an hour. Since our hands may have germs on them, the constant contact opens us up to infection.
And before you hit the buffet table, take a detour to the nearest sink. “Hand washing is the most important thing,” says Preeti Malani, MD, MSJ, chief health officer and a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan.
Scrubbing for at least 20 seconds is more effective than applying hand sanitizer, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but it’s still worth stashing a bottle of sanitizer in your pocket, in case a sink isn’t available.
A study published in The BMJ, among others, have found air travel may raise your odds of developing certain infections.
After all, says Malani, air travel is kind of like an enormous party—at least when it comes to exposure to viruses. For starters, “You’re going through the airport; you’re touching hand railings and sitting in seats.”
And that’s before you even get to the flight itself. Nevermind the bathroom: tray tables have been shown to be some of the dirtiest things on airplanes, followed by seat belts and armrests. Add in the sniffling passenger in Row D, and your odds of developing an illness only increase.
Now, the good news: despite rumors you may have heard, recirculated air actually doesn’t increase your risk of catching a cold. So arm yourself with disinfectant wipes for the nearby surfaces, and wash or sanitize your hands during and immediately after flying.
Ideally, stash some extra clothes for a quick change after the flight, too.
Day to day
The holidays may offer an extra dose of germs, but the reality is that you’re constantly exposed to them, all the time, throughout your life.
Most of the time, though, your body is able to easily fend off ailments, thanks to your robust immune system.
Unfortunately, that’s where the holidays can cause you to fall short. Extra stress and sleep deprivation have both been shown to temporarily impair immune systems.
So hit the hay for the full 7 – 8 hours, and keep up regular exercise. Even if you have to cut back, even some amount of movement may help: One study out of the University of San Diego School of Medicine found that as little as 20 minutes of exercise can stimulate the immune system.
Try to mitigate stress, too, which can not only impair your immune system, but also make you more likely to forget important things like taking your medications on time.
That extra focus on stress relief could make a difference in allowing you to have a happy—and healthy—holiday season.