Worried about flu – what can you do?

With us now in December and with the party season around the corner, it would seem that there are a fair few of us worried about getting colds and flu.

In fact a recent survey conducted by Yakult showed that 68% *of people are worried about getting ill and that the UK could be facing upto 36 million** sick days being taken over the winter months! That’s a lot of sick days and a lot of work to catch up on.

The problem many of us face is that we think it’s inevitable that we’re going to catch a cold. It’s winter, it’s started to get cold, of course I’ll get ill. And I guess if we’re not looking after our immune systems and trying to protect ourselves then yes, we’re more vulnerable.

It is true that the cold weather can put a strain on our immune system, the protective network of chemicals and cells that offers our best defence against infections. It is able to recognise viruses that it has previously encountered, and will try to fight them off.

 “However, viruses that cause colds and flu are able to mutate quickly – and whilst a well-supported immune system may be able to fight off an unrecognised strain, a weak system may not be enough to stop the infection taking hold.

So what can we do to help strengthen the immune system? Here’s some top tips:

  • Eat well: Aim for a balanced diet, including at least five different fruit and vegetables every day. Foods that can offer particular immune benefits include:
  • Citrus fruits and berries – sources of Vitamin C, thought to help shorten the duration of colds and increase the production of infection fighting cells;
  • Avocado, wheat germ, nuts and whole grains – sources of Vitamin E, an antioxidant that can help to improve cellular immunity;
  • Potatoes, bananas, chicken, eggs and green leafy vegetables – all contain Vitamin B6, which can enhance the development of defence cells;
  • Poultry, cheese, shellfish, liver and dried beans and peas – all contain zinc, which helps to ensure efficient white blood cell production; and
  • Probiotics – The majority of the immune system is located in the gut, and a daily probiotic such as Yakult can help to top up levels of essential beneficial bacteria in the intestine. 
  •  Keep your distance! Try to steer clear of anyone already infected, since viruses can be passed through the droplets created when coughing or sneezing. 
  • Clean up: Viruses can also be contracted through touching infected surfaces such as door handles, so be sure to wash your hands regularly.  
  • Cut out the baddies! Try to avoid:
  • Excessive alcohol, which can deprive the immune system of valuable nutrients; and
  • Smoking, which can damage the ‘cilia’ that keep airways clear, thus leaving you more susceptible to infection.  
  • Clear the air. Ensure that windows are open at all times, to allow fresh air to circulate.  
  • De-stress: Stress lowers resistance to infection, so try to relax, take it easy, and get a good night’s sleep – aim for seven to eight hours each night. 
  • Exercise. Regular, moderate exercise has been shown to help immunity, so try to build activity into your day – perhaps take a brisk walk in your lunch break!

 And if you do catch a cold, try these tips to help speed recovery:

  •  Take time to recover. Minimise stress; give your body a chance to rest and fight off the infection.  
  • Keep boosting! A healthy immune system will help speed recovery. Follow the tips above and eat a varied, fresh, nutritious diet, along with a daily probiotic.
  •  Be prepared: Always carry tissues – and when you sneeze, cover your nose and dispose of the tissue in a bin.
  •  Catch your sneezes: If you have no tissues, sneeze into the inside of your elbow instead of your hand. That way you won’t share germs with others when shaking hands, etc.
  •  Drink up. Aim to drink at least eight glasses of (non-alcoholic) fluid a day, to replace fluid lost through sweating.
  •  Head of steam. Fill a bowl with hot (not boiling) water, cover your head with a towel, and inhale the steam. This will lubricate the nasal area, helping to eliminate phlegm.
  •  Extra help. Ask your pharmacist for advice on an over-the-counter remedy. Stick to one product, and follow instructions carefully. And if you experience any unusual or persistent symptoms, see your GP for professional medical advice.


*OnePoll survey for Yakult UK Ltd., September 2009 (3,000 respondents).

**Based on time taken off work (www.flusurvey.org.uk) and number of people in employment (ONS).