How to Avoid Catching the Flu at the Office

'Tis the season for passing germs around the cubicle.

One minute everything is fine: you’re swapping Thanksgiving horror stories over a tray of holiday cookies in the kitchen. The next it’s as if the plague has swept through the office. Your cubicle mate, boss and receptionist all look like walking zombies. You find yourself dodging coughs, sneezes and germ-laden handshakes at every corner.

You may think that coming down with the flu is a no-brainer excuse to spend the day at home on the couch but a survey conducted by CVS Pharmacy revealed that 64 percent of Americans would still go to work if they had flu-like symptoms.

And even if people give themselves a day off, flu sufferers are contagious for 5 to 7 days after they show symptoms, according to Dr. Sharon Orrange, MD, FACP, MPH, Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Southern California and medical advisor to GoodRx.

Which means your office just became a breeding ground for germs.

“Both colds and flus are caused by viral infections of the upper respiratory tract, which may lead to sneezing, fevers, body aches, malaise, fatigue and sore throat,” said Dr. Gabrielle Francis, Naturopathic Doctor, Chiropractor, Acupuncturist, in practice as THE HERBAN ALCHEMIST, and operator of BACKSTAGE ALTERNATIVE, a natural medicine road show. “Anyone traveling a lot, experiencing stress, sleeping too little, or otherwise living on the extreme end of the health spectrum is at risk.”

Great. So that’s about … every single one of of us for the next month.

Unfortunately, you can’t quarantine everyone in your office who shows up looking under the weather. But what you can do is know the tricks to avoid germ hotspots in the office, and put yourself in the best possible position to fend off any unwanted infection when you inevitably encounter them.

Phase 1: Boost Your Immunity

Between your cubicle mate, everyone in line at Starbucks, and the jam-packed train, it’s highly unlikely you will be able to dodge the germs all season long. So it’s key to take preventative measures that boost immunity and build up your defenses to fight the good fight when Larry comes to work hacking up a lung.

Keep Stress to a Minimum 

We know, it’s easier said than done. But keeping stress at a manageable level is vital to keeping our immune systems functioning optimally.

According to the American Psychological Association, lab studies revealed that for stress of any significant duration—from a few days to a few months or years, as happens in real life—all aspects of immunity went downhill. They concluded that long-term or chronic stress can ravage the immune system.

“Up to 90 percent of illness and disease is stress-related,” said Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, author of The Magnesium Miracle and The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to Women’s Health, who also dubs magnesium the anti-stress mineral. “Numerous studies have shown its effectiveness in lowering anxiety and reducing stress levels. Serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical that is boosted artificially by some medications, depends on magnesium for its production and function without the harmful side-effects of drugs.”

Cut Back On Exercise If You’re Feeling Sick

A great way to combat all the stress of the holidays and in turn, give your immunity a boost, is to schedule in a daily workout. Physical activity produces endorphins—chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers—and also improves the ability to sleep, which reduces stress.

But once you’re sick—cut back. Over exercising can hinder the immune system as it battles illness. “Too much exercise can lead to a dramatically increased risk of upper respiratory infections (URIs),” wrote Mark A. Jenkins, MD. “The stress of strenuous exercise transiently suppresses immune function. This interruption of otherwise vigorous surveillance can provide an ‘open window’ for a variety of infectious diseases—notably viral illnesses—to take hold.”

Add Hours to Your Sleep Bank

“Make sure you are getting enough rest. A well-rested you can better fight off any foreign invaders like flu viruses,” said Dr. Jack Dybis, D.O., a Chicago-based trauma and general surgeon and founder of IVme Wellness + Performance of Chicago.

When it comes to running low on sleep, catching a cold or the flu may be the least of your worries. According to Harvard Medical School, sleep deprivation increases our risk for obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, too.

The sleep-stress cycle is also particularly important to be aware of, especially during cold and flu season where normal day-to-day stressors are compounded by the demands of the holidays and end of year projects at work. Being under stress affects the quality and quantity of our sleep, and those who are sleep deprived report feeling more stressed. So it’s a never-ending cycle.

“Being tired makes it harder for the body to fight off disease,” said Dean. “Although very difficult at times, getting enough sleep ensures that your body has the strength to fight off pathogens. Magnesium is also a natural sleep aid that relaxes muscles and helps achieve deeper restful sleep.”

Focus on Gut Health

“Taking probiotics should be your first line of defense when it comes to winter wellness. During cold and flu season, environmental toxins, such as those found at work when a colleague comes to office sick, can throw off the delicate gut balance, causing an overabundance of unfriendly bacteria,” said Susan Sloane, a registered pharmacist and wellness consultant for Family Flora. “Probiotics can help restore the vital good bacteria in the gut, making it more difficult for bad bacteria to survive, and restoring the balance to keep us well.

 What should you look for when purchasing a probiotic?

“People should be on the lookout for a probiotic with a prebiotic, which is the ‘food’ that nourishes probiotics and ensure colonies of good bacteria are thriving,” said Sloane.

“Boost immunity with probiotics containing Lactobacillus acidophilus and vitamins A (25,000 IU daily) and C (1,000 mg daily),” added Francis. “Supplement with herbal cold and flu fighters like astragalus, Echinacea, elderberry, goldenseal, and ligusticum. Try essential oil of eucalyptus and peppermint under the nose or in massage oil to soothe coughing and clear sinuses.”

Nutrient-Load Your Plate 

It’s pretty much a no-brainer that fueling your body with nutritious foods creates the optimal environment for it to fend off infection. Francis recommend packing in extra fruit and veggies—focusing on those that are yellow, orange, and red, as they are packed with antioxidants.

“Sweet potatoes are a great option. They are loaded with beta-carotene, which supports immune function and fights free radicals,” she said. She also recommended eating foods that have antibiotic properties, like garlic and onions.

“If we are deficient in vitamins and minerals our immune system will not be able to fight off infections and disease as efficiently as it could,” said Dr. Kathy Gruver, PhD, a health and wellness expert and author of The Alternative Medicine Cabinet. “Getting enough water, eating real, whole foods and getting fresh fruits and vegetables is going to benefit us overall. And avoiding toxins and chemicals like artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup is going to take less of a toll on our body.”

Avoid Inflammatory Foods—Especially Sugar

“You should avoid foods that can cause inflammation in your body as it can weaken your immune system,” Francis added. “These foods include added sugars and excess alcohol as well as dairy and wheat.”

And the biggest offender when it comes to inflammation lives on that tray of holiday cookies. Sugar is particularly damaging to your immune system. Studies show that it induces inflammation, and it’s not just the sweets that needs to go, but less obvious sources like the mixer in your cocktails, processed foods and white bread made from refined flour.

“To further boost your immune system, stay away from sugar,” said Dean. “Sugar decreases the function of your immune system at almost the instant you ingest it.”

But if you do have a sweet tooth nagging you, reach for Francis’ go-to immune-boosting dessert: coconut ice cream. “It’s high in medium chain fatty acids and has lauric acids. That means it’s antimicrobial and helps support immune function,” she said. She also recommended snacking on yogurt and muesli thanks to the protein, enzymes and probiotics that help support immunity.

Give Skin Brushing a Try

When you’re in the shower, take one minute to give yourself a good brushdown. “Lightly stroke wet or dry skin in the direction of the heart using a loofah or sponge,” said Francis. “Doing so promotes detoxification and circulation of the lymphatics and strengthens immunity. Remember to use a light hand—you’re increasing lymphatic flow, not removing dead skin layers!”

Your Best Line of Defense: The Flu Shot

“The best way to avoid getting the flu from your coworkers is to take preventative measures and get a flu shot. A flu shot can usually reduce your chance of getting the flu by 50 to 70 percent. And the more people who are vaccinated against the flu, the less likely it is to spread to others in the office, which is something we refer to as herd-immunity,” said Dybis.

“Getting a flu shot is the most effective way to protect yourself and your family from getting the flu. It takes up to two weeks to develop immunity after getting a flu shot, so the CDC recommends you get vaccinated as soon as flu vaccines become available,” added Jeremy Blais, Pharmacy Supervisor at CVS Health.

Does that mean it’s too late? Nope. “Flu season typically peaks in January or February, but can last well into April and even May. The flu virus changes year over year, which is why the CDC recommends an annual flu shot for everyone six months and older,” said Blais. “Getting a flu shot now will still protect you and your family throughout the rest of the flu season, especially through the January and February peak!”

Are you one of those people who swears the only time they actually got the flu was when they opted for the shot?

Blais debunked this myth: “The viruses in the flu shot are killed (inactivated), so people cannot get the flu from a flu shot. Minor side effects include soreness, redness or swelling where the shot was given, a low grade fever, and/or aches. These side effects that people may mistake for the flu are a result of your immune system reacting to the small amount of inactivated virus in the shot, and actually mean that it’s working! These side effects begin soon after the shot, usually last one to two days, and are milder than the symptoms you would experience with the actual flu. Most people who receive the influenza vaccine have no serious problems as a result of receiving it.”

Phase 2: Reduce Germ Exposer at the Office

Once you’ve taken the proper steps to ensure that your immune system has a leg up on cold and flu season, it’s time to get smart about navigating an office place crawling with germs.

Know Where the Germs Are Hanging Out

“In the office, common items such as phones, pens and kitchen/lounge items are constantly being touched by many people and are a major source of spreading germs,” said Dr. Jack Cornwell, medical director for Boston-based CareWell Urgent Care. “One way to avoid this is by using your own phone or pen, instead of those in conference rooms and other common areas and wiping down surfaces that several coworkers have touched with sanitizer wipes can help avoid contamination. When that’s not practical, use hand sanitizer.”

Wash Your Hands … A Lot

“Your best weapon against cold and flu viruses is washing your hands,” said Dr. Orrange. “Use soap and warm water and rub hands together as the friction may be the reason hand washing really works. Wash hands for 15-20 seconds. Don’t want to count? Try washing while you sing Happy Birthday twice or your ABCs once.”

You may be conditioned to wash your hand after going to the bathroom, but Dr. Cornwell encouraged people to establish the same habit after using high-trafficked items around the office. “It’s no secret that over the course of any given day, your hands come into contact with surfaces containing thousands of potentially harmful bacteria. To avoid having these pesky germs causing unwanted illness, it is important to frequently wash your hands, particularly during the winter months when the threat of catching the flu are the most high.”

Yes, You Can Carry Them Home With You

Your scarf, purse and suit jacket all just became vehicles for transporting germs back to your apartment.

“To avoid contamination of your personal belongings it is best to store your items in a private locker or in a space that you control,” said Cornwell. “If a person in the office is coughing it is a good idea to avoid being in the area. It’s surprising how far droplets spread–try thinking ‘exhale’ when they are coughing or sneezing so that you aren’t breathing in their germs.”

Chug Water

Have your gossip ready. You need to up the visits to the water cooler this season.

“You should stay hydrated by drinking a minimum of 8 to 10 glasses of water each day,” said Francis. “You can also supplement this with herbal teas, especially if you’re already sick.”

And it’s time to up your tea game, too. Francis provides two recipes to help you ward off the common cold:

Tea for First Signs of a Cold: Take this tea at the first sign of a cold to sweat out the virus:

Ingredients: 1 oz. fresh ginger sliced. 1 stick of cinnamon, broken. 1 tsp of coriander seeds. 3 cloves. 1 slice of lemon. 1 pot of water.

Directions: Put the ingredients in the water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes. Strain. Sweeten with organic honey to taste. Drink one cup every 2 hours.

Cold Cure Tea: Take this tea if you have a cold as an antiviral and immune stimulant.

Ingredients: Equal parts: Elderflowers, peppermint and hyssop.

Directions: Add 1 teaspoon of dried herb to a cup of boiled water. Let it steep for 10 minutes before drinking. Drink one cup of tea three times per day.



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