Cold and flu season is officially here, and parents everywhere are waging war against sore throats, stuffy noses and high fevers. Not to mention, we're still questioning whether every new symptom popping up is a cold or potentially Covid. What's a mama to do when sickness has breached the walls of her home and taken up residence in the form of a chicken soup-sipping kiddo on the couch? How do you keep yourself healthy when your kids are sick?
Hope is not lost: We reached out to experts for their best tips on protecting yourself and limiting the spread of viruses. In addition to washing (and washing and washing) those hands and talking to your healthcare provider about the flu shot, the pros had some other often-overlooked recommendations for how to stay healthy in a germ-y home.
1. Boost immunity with breakfast
The war on the common cold can start at the breakfast table. Registered dietitian Susan Stalte says families should cut the processed foods and add more nutrient-dense foods, especially at breakfast. "Morning protein is important for fullness, but it also helps with tissue repair and a general immune-system boost," says Stalte.
She says parents should opt for whole protein sources such as meat, fish, dairy, eggs, beans, tofu or nuts to add some immune-boosting protein power to breakfast. That might look like a yogurt bowl with berries, a fried egg and cheese sandwich or a smoothie with added protein powder. Then aim to round it out—at least throughout the rest of the day. "A nutritionally balanced diet is best for cold prevention as each nutrient plays a different key role in overall wellness," says Stalte.
2. If you feel a cold coming on, turn to the vitamin C & zinc team
Some studies suggest high doses of vitamin C or zinc can limit the duration of an upper respiratory infection or cold. It's not 100% effective, but the risk of toxicity is minimal—so it's worth a shot even if there's a small benefit, says Dr. Gonzalo Bearman, professor of medicine and chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.
And it's not too late if you're already sick. Dr. Celine Thum, medical director at ParaDocs Worldwide, says the combo of vitamin C and zinc can decrease the duration of symptoms even after a cold starts to set in. "When you start to feel a little bit sick and start to feel that scratchy throat and think, 'Maybe I am coming down with something,' go ahead and take vitamin C," says Dr. Thum, who recommends lozenges.
3. Try some fresh ginger
If vitamin C-rich foods such as peppers, Brussels sprouts and broccoli are too tame for your taste, spicy ginger is another great source of immune boosting phytochemicals, or plant compounds.
Ginger is well-regarded for its powerful antiviral and antibacterial properties, making it a strong immune system stimulant. One test-tube study even found that fresh ginger helped protect against RSV.
Infusing a couple inches of peeled ginger in simmering water for 15 minutes makes a warming brew that you can sweeten with honey, then sip throughout the day.
4. Stock up on elderberry
An herbal medicine with a long history of use, black elderberry has been found highly effective in treating upper respiratory infections and reducing the duration of the common cold. One meta-analysis found that elderberry supplementation substantially reduced symptoms of upper respiratory infections. Keep some elderberry gummies on hand for when the first signs of a cold start showing up to hopefully shorten their stay.
5. Stay hydrated
While certain foods and medicinal herbs can slow a virus' progress, Dr. Bearman cautions there is no menu item with the antiviral properties that can stop a cold or flu from happening altogether.
It does help, however, to down a few glasses of water—at least when it comes to helping the body respond to the stress of illness. "Adequate hydration is important for overall homeostasis," says Dr. Bearman. "It does allow the body to better respond to any sort of stressor."
6. Get as much sleep as possible
Studies show that being well rested goes a long way toward fending off the flu or colds—with one report finding people who slept an average of less than six hours per night were 4.2 times more likely to catch a cold than fellow test subjects who logged more than seven hours of sleep.
"Short sleep was more important than any other factor in predicting subjects' likelihood of catching cold," said the study's lead author Aric Prather, PhD, in a media release. "It didn't matter how old people were, their stress levels, their race, education or income. It didn't matter if they were a smoker. With all those things taken into account, statistically sleep still carried the day."
Of course, if you want to avoid getting a cold or the flu in the coming months, now is the best time to talk to your health care provider for recommendations on the flu shot and other preventative measures. And of course, hand washing is a huge factor in preventing cold and flu from spreading.
A version of this story was originally published on Sept. 29, 2017. It has been updated.