Is there really a secret to avoid the flu?
On average, we will suffer around 200 bouts of the common cold in our lifetime and get struck down with the flu around 16 times, yet there are some lucky people who never seem to pick up these common illnesses.
Colds and flu are the most common cause of visits to the doctor and missed days from school or work. With over 200 different types of cold viruses it is even possible to get one cold straight after the other, which is why some people may feel like they are constantly sick.
The myth of the super-resister
Some people can be more prone to picking up colds and flu based on their lifestyle and circumstances. For example, children tend to catch more colds than adults, around six to ten a year, which may be due to their close proximity to each other at school or nursery.
There are also groups who seem less prone to picking up the winter lurgy: those aged over 60 may get only one cold per year, which could be down to their years of building up immunity to these common illnesses. Equally, doctors, nurses and teachers are among those who often seem to manage to avoid picking up the sniffles, which again is likely to be down to their constant exposure to the viruses, from sick patients and children, helping to build up their immune systems*.
Aside from these environmental factors, are there any other reasons why some lucky few claim never to be laid up with the sniffles and is there a secret to their almost superhuman immunity?
Doctors and immunologists are sceptical that superhuman people exist and in fact, it is mostly down to the highly individual and complex nature of our immune systems, habits and social interactions. Our immune systems are almost as specific to each of us as a set of fingerprints and it seems to be the case that some of us inherit a set of immune system genes that are particularly good at dealing with certain viruses, such as colds and flu.
It’s not just the genes that make a difference
Apart from simply inheriting good ‘immunity’ genes, there are several proactive steps we can all take to dodge winter illnesses. Here are our top tips – rooted in scientific research – which can help everyone reduce their chances of winter ailments.
Ditch the handshake
Our hands are the main culprits for spreading cold and flu germs. Coughing or sneezing into our hands or touching contaminated surfaces and then touching our eyes or noses is one of the main ways the virus is spread around. Don’t be offended if your doctor or child’s teacher doesn’t want to shake hands, because they know it’s a big no no when it comes to preventing the spread of germs. In fact, you are less likely to catch a cold by kissing someone on the cheek than you are from shaking their hand, that’s because most cold viruses are not spread through saliva.
Don’t eat lunch at your desk
Cold and flu germs can live on surfaces for hours – your keyboard, phone, drawer and door handles are all prime areas for spreading viruses around the office. Touching a contaminated surface and then handling your food can put the germs directly into your system. So, one of the things doctors do to avoid picking up winter illnesses is to get away from their desks and take their lunch elsewhere. Not only will it give you chance to take a break from work but will also help keep bugs at bay.
Stress can have a negative effect on the immune system and many people see a link between stress and physical illness. Stress releases a hormone called cortisol, which fights inflammation and disease and helps us deal with the situation at hand. However, the constant release of this hormone from leading a stressful life can actually result in increased inflammation and disease and supress the effectiveness of the immune system, leaving you open to picking up winter bugs and illnesses.
Heading outside and soaking up some sunlight helps to increase our intake of vitamin D. This in turn can help to boost our immune system. Getting children out of the house to play is also beneficial, as it gives them early exposure to germs and bacteria and there is evidence that suggests the more bacteria and viruses children come into contact with; the more resilient their immune system will be in later life.
So there is no hard and fast scientific evidence to suggest that these ‘lucky’ few actually exist, but instead genes and lifestyle seem to play a bigger part in how to avoid winter illnesses. So try adding these tricks to your daily routine and it may just help to reduce the number of colds and flu you get this winter.
And if you do get caught with a case of the sniffles, then take a look at our blog on combating cold and flu symptoms for tips on treating winter bugs and when you might need to see your GP.
*William Schaffner, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine