15 ways to prevent colds & flu

From the latest research to time-honored remedies, here are the very best feel-good strategies for your healthiest winter ever
© Prevention // © Prevention

HERE'S A SURPRISE: You may spend more time each year nursing a sore throat, fever, and runny nose than you do on vacation. Add it up: Adults get about three colds a year on average, each lasting a week or two. On top of that, 5 to 20% of us will also get the flu, which can linger even longer. That's a month--or more!

This year, take back that time--and your health. These tested tips for fighting colds and flu can help you stay well all winter.

10 Ways You're Wrecking Your Immune System

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1. Meditate

Your mind can cut your chances of catching a cold by 40 to 50%, according to a 2012 University of Wisconsin, Madison, study. Fifty-one people who used mindfulness techniques logged 13 fewer illnesses and 51 fewer sick days than a control group during one cold-and-flu season, probably because meditation reduces physical effects of stress that weaken the immune system.

Meditation To Match Your Personality

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2. Try Probiotics

"We recommend taking probiotics--foods or supplements containing bacteria that are good for your health--that include Lactobacillus, because it can reduce the risk of both respiratory and gastrointestinal infections," says Mike Gleeson, PhD, professor of exercise biochemistry at Loughborough University in England. And people taking probiotics were 42% less likely to get a cold than those on a placebo, according to a 2011 meta-analysis of 10 studies.

10 Delicious Drinks That Support Your Immunity

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3. Eat More Garlic

"Allicin, a substance in crushed garlic, helps fight viruses," says Richard Nahas, MD, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa. In a British study, volunteers who took a daily 180 mg allicin supplement caught 63% fewer colds over 12 weeks than those taking a placebo. Garlic cloves contain less allicin (5 to 9 mg), but even two raw cloves a day may help, says Randy Horwitz, MD, PhD, medical director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine in Tucson.

Find tasty ways to add more garlic to your life with Prevention's Recipe Finder.

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4. Practice Qigong

This Chinese mind-body exercise combines breath control and slow movements to reduce stress and improve focus, but it may also help combat colds. Twenty-seven varsity swimmers in a University of Virginia study learned qigong, and during their 7-week training season, those who practiced it at least once a week got 70% fewer respiratory infections than swimmers who used it less.

5 Qigong Moves That Reduce Stress

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5. Exercise

People who exercise 5 or more days a week spend 43% fewer days with upper-respiratory infections, according to an Appalachian State University study. "I make sure I exercise to stay healthy," says lead author David Nieman, DrPH. "Aim for 30 to 60 minutes daily. It boosts blood flow so that the immune cells circulate throughout the body."

17 Ways Exercise Sends Health Soaring

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6. Get Vaccinated

"For flu protection, nothing is as directly effective as vaccination," says Prevention advisory board member David L. Katz, MD, MPH. If the post-shot muscle pain makes you injection-shy (and you're between ages 18 and 64), visit fluzone.com to find a location using intradermal shots, which are injected into skin and use much smaller needles.

4 Flu Shot Myths -- Busted

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7. Wash (and dry!) your hands often

Cleaning your hands frequently--especially after touching anyone or anything that may be germy--is key to defending yourself against cold and flu viruses. But drying hands thoroughly is just as important, because germs cling to your skin more easily when it's wet. Be sure to replace damp towels with dry ones often.

5 Ways To Prevent A Cold

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8. Get Enough Sleep

Your immune system needs rest to keep you healthy. In one study done at Carnegie Mellon University, even if people said they felt well rested if they'd averaged fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night, they were almost 3 times as likely to get a cold as those who got 8 hours or more of sack time. (Not the best sleeper? Here are 10 tips to get your best night's sleep ever.)

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9. Add Astragalus

In test-tube studies, the root astragalus (uh-STRAG-uh-lus) activates T-cells, the white blood cells that fight off viruses, and experts believe it can prevent colds in real life too. "Astragalus seems to work very well, and your body doesn't develop a tolerance to it, so you can eat it daily," Dr. Horwitz says. Use the earthy root as a vegetable, chopping up a 3-inch piece and adding it to soup. Or try 250 mg in standardized capsules twice a day.

Check out our How to Prevent Anything center for more natural home remedies.

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