Over the next few weeks, millions of people — perhaps yourself included — will travel near and far to visit loved ones for the holiday season. And as holiday travel and gatherings ramp up, cases of respiratory illnesses, such as flu, COVID and RSV, are expected to soar.
After all, these viruses spread best when people gather indoors in close proximity to one another. Even though we typically see a steady increase in respiratory illnesses this time of year, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doomed.
You can take plenty of steps to protect your health and reduce the chances you’ll return home sneezing and coughing. We asked four doctors what they do to stay in good health over the holidays. Here’s what they said:
Get enough sleep.
It’s a simple tip, but it’s an incredibly effective one. Sleep deprivation, even after just one poor night’s sleep, can take a pretty significant toll on your well-being, says Bernadette Boden-Albala, the founding dean of the University of California, Irvine Program in Public Health.
During stints where you don’t get enough sleep, your body produces less infection-fighting antibodies and cells, according to the Mayo Clinic. As a result, the risk of contracting an infectious disease, including the common cold, can increase, research shows.
Boden-Albala knows it can be tough to get a solid night’s sleep over the holidays — but if you can snooze for around seven to nine hours each night, per guidance from the National Institutes of Health, it’s worth it.
To help yourself fall asleep, Boden-Albala recommends trading in your screens for a book or mindfulness activity about an hour before bedtime. If you’re sharing a house with noisy relatives, consider using a sound machine, as research shows this can significantly improve the quality and duration of sleep. Aim to keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool — evidence suggests the ideal range is in the mid- to high 60s. However, older adults may prefer it to be a bit warmer.
Stay up to date on their routine vaccinations.
The other thing Boden-Albala stands by is getting vaccinated. For her, COVID and flu shots are especially important as we see new strains of these viruses every year. This is, in fact, the first year we have vaccines to protect against all three of the most common respiratory viruses: COVID, influenza, and, finally, RSV.
These vaccines will provide the best protection against the strains that are currently circulating, according to Boden-Albala. “They can either completely prevent infection or stop people from experiencing severe illness that requires hospitalization,” she said.
You can get vaccinated (and find out what shots are appropriate for you) at a local pharmacy, urgent care, community health clinic or primary care doctor. You can use this resource from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to find a vaccination site in your area.
Wash their hands ― a lot.
Dr. Delana Wardlaw, a family medicine physician at Temple Physicians at Nicetown and co-founder of Twin Sister Docs in Philadelphia, said washing her hands is one of the simplest ways she avoids getting sick because it helps her quickly and efficiently remove germs from her hands. She aims to wash her hands with soap and water for about 20 seconds. If there’s no sink, soap, or water in sight, she opts for hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol.
Dr. Marc Kai, a primary care physician with Mercy Medical Center, does the same. “It’s probably the single biggest thing we can do to prevent spreading illness, and especially important around the holidays as we tend to spend more time with folks whose immune systems might not be what it used to,” he said.
So, how frequently should you wash your hands? According to Wardlaw, ideally, anytime you touch food, your pet, another person, or a shared surface (like a doorknob or touch screen). “Doing such allows for significant reduction in transferring bacterial and viral organisms that cause respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses,” she said.
Stay physically active.
Kai also makes a point of staying physically active over the holidays. He does this for two reasons: for his sanity and the physical health benefits.
Exercise is an effective stress reliever because it causes our body to produce endorphins, or feel-good hormones that can boost our mood. According to the CDC, regular physical activity also promotes blood sugar control, brain and heart health, and weight management. It’s also associated with a lower risk of community-acquired infectious diseases by potentially making the immune system more effective, according to a study published in 2021.
Kai tries to find workouts he’ll be motivated to stick with even after the holidays are behind him. Rather than going all in too quickly, he recommends finding a workout you enjoy — perhaps going on daily walks or doing an online workout class from home — so you ramp up gradually and avoid exercise burnout heading into the new year.
Try to keep germs out of the home.
Being exposed to germs is inevitable, especially during the holiday season. “Between traveling, gatherings with loved ones and even coming home from work or school, people often forget cold and flu germs can lurk on hundreds of common surfaces we encounter daily,” said Eva Beaulieu, a board-certified internal medicine hospitalist near Atlanta, Georgia.
The flu virus, for example, can live on certain surfaces for up to 48 hours, according to the CDC. A recent study from the Imperial College London found that COVID primarily spreads through household transmission, often through frequently touched household surfaces (such as the fridge, kitchen sink and coffee pots).
To help prevent germs from spreading inside her home, Beaulieu adheres to a “no outdoor items inside” rule. “For example, we leave our shoes by the door and don’t bring suitcases on our beds,” she explained.
After a long day at work or school, heading straight for the kitchen or couch can be tempting, dragging pathogens inside. To prevent this, she’s created a designated drop zone near the front door of her home, where her family can leave their shoes, work items and school bags before heading indoors. Beaulieu’s second trick is to disinfect shared surfaces in the house — counters, light switches, faucet handles and suitcases — whenever she gets the chance.
We may not be able to totally eliminate germs from our environments, but there are several things we can do to reduce the amount of pathogens we’re exposed to. As we head into the holiday season, give one of these doctor-backed tips a shot — they may very well help you stay healthy during a season notorious for stuffy noses and sore throats.