Everyday Health

5 Ways to Protect Yourself From the Flu and Other Respiratory Illnesses

Originally published October 12, 2020

Last updated April 30, 2024

Reading Time: 4 minutes

It’s more important than ever to take steps to reduce your risk for respiratory illnesses like the flu, colds and COVID-19.

Every year, as cold and flu season gets underway, people look for ways to avoid getting sick. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more crucial.

“More than ever, it’s important that we use all possible measures to prevent illness that can impair our immune system during this respiratory pandemic,” urges Carolyn Kaloostian, MD, MPH, a family medicine physician at Keck Medicine of USC and clinical associate professor of family medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

These strategies can help protect you.

1. Get a flu shot.

Receiving the flu vaccine is key to preventing seasonal flu. During the 2018-19 flu season, the flu vaccine prevented an estimated 4.4 million flu cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The flu vaccine is a safe and effective preventive measure,” Kaloostian says. “Everyone 6 months and older should be vaccinated.”

Although the flu shot doesn’t protect against every type of influenza virus, it’s still your best chance at not getting sick with the flu. And if you do get the flu, there’s evidence that the vaccine reduces the severity of it.

And while the flu vaccine won’t protect you against COVID-19, fewer flu hospitalizations can help free up valuable medical resources for taking care of patients with the novel coronavirus.

2. Practice everyday preventive measures.

By now we’re used to thoroughly washing our hands to prevent COVID-19. Handwashing also helps protect against colds and flu. If you can’t get to a sink to wash your hands, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, handwashing, physical distancing and face coverings have been recommended to limit the spread of the virus. This flu season, it’s important to continue these measures,” Kaloostian says.

While the CDC doesn’t have specific guidance on wearing face masks for flu prevention outside of health care settings, we’re wearing them anyway to protect against COVID-19. Some research suggests that they may help reduce the spread of the flu.

In addition to handwashing and wearing a face mask, it’s also important to avoid close contact with people who are sick, and to avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. The CDC also recommends keeping your home and office space clean and disinfected, particularly high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, phones and keyboards.

3. Get your vitamins and minerals.

Vitamin D, vitamin C and zinc are essential nutrients for immune function and for defending against viruses, according to Kaloostian.

Vitamin D, in particular, has some of the strongest evidence when it comes to flu and cold prevention.

“Vitamin D is an important supplement to consider, especially since the majority of adults have low levels of vitamin D, and it has been shown to protect against upper respiratory infections,” Kaloostian says. “Low vitamin D levels have also been associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 infection.”

Vitamin D can be hard to get from diet alone unless foods are fortified with it. And although our bodies make vitamin D when we are exposed to sunlight, being outside without sunscreen isn’t recommended. If you’re considering taking a vitamin D supplement, be sure to speak to your doctor first.

While it doesn’t prevent the flu or the common cold, vitamin C has been shown to lessen cold symptoms in people who regularly take vitamin C supplements. “However, vitamin C doesn’t help once symptoms begin,” Kaloostian adds.

Most people get enough vitamin C from their diet, but if you’re a smoker, you’re at greater risk for low levels of vitamin C.

“Studies show that smokers need an additional 35 milligrams of vitamin C daily than people who don’t smoke,” Kaloostian says.

Like vitamin C, zinc hasn’t been linked to flu or cold prevention, but it is important for your immune system in general, Kaloostian explains.

“Zinc is required to develop and activate lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) to fight infection,” she says. “Even mild degrees of zinc deficiency can impair immune function. Vegetarians and people with chronic gastrointestinal disease, in particular, are at higher risk for low zinc levels.”

But as with any supplement regimen, talk to your doctor before taking zinc, because it can cause gastrointestinal symptoms, like nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and can interfere with some medications.

4. Maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Keeping your body strong and healthy from the inside out can also help protect you from illness.

“During these unprecedented, anxiety-provoking times, it’s important to do all we can to strengthen and fortify our immune system,” Kaloostian says. “This includes getting back to the basics of healthy routines for well-balanced meals, sleep schedules and work-life balance.”

She advises seeking out occupational therapists, wellness coaches or work-life specialists if you’re having difficulty in these areas.

5. Manage your stress.

Stress can also affect your health, so it’s important to try to keep it under control.

“Many people have experienced immense changes in their work and family lives due to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a very stressful situation,” Kaloostian says.

Stress-reduction strategies, such as mindfulness, meditation, dance, pet therapy or music therapy, can be learned and incorporated into the busiest of schedules, she explains.

“There is help, and I encourage you to discuss specific issues with your primary care provider or employer so you can access resources as soon as possible.”


Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a freelance writer covering health, culture, travel and parenting.