How to boost your immunity during the cold and flu season

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

photo by James Gathany

Looking for a cure for the common cold or flu?  Sorry to disappoint.  You won’t find one that is proven to work.  Trying to boost your immunity to fight off those pesky viruses?  You’ve come to the right place.  As a reminder, colds and influenza are caused by viruses that affect your upper respiratory system.  Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses.  They don’t work on colds or the flu.  If you do get one of these nasty viruses, it has to run its course as your body’s immune system fights it to the finish.  Here are some ways you can boost and strengthen your immune system to help in the battle.

Let’s get the boring remedies out of the way first.  The ones that actually have been proven to work.

  • For the full blown, lab diagnosed, rip-roaring influenza, the immunization shot and nose spray do work most of the time.  This flu season, the CDC reports that the majority of strains of influenza, so far reported, are related to the 2008-2009 vaccine. In other words, the scientists guessed correctly, and the vaccine or spray is working relatively well.  Specifically, 75 percent of the strains tested, so far, are similar to those included in the influenza vaccine.  However, the early news regarding the oral antiviral drug, Tamiflu (generic oseltamivir) is not so good.  A majority of this season’s early influenza strains has been resistant to this drug, which is prescribed, when you get the flu, to decrease the symptoms and duration.  Tamiflu is not working.  That is all the more reason to go ahead and get the vaccine.  It is not too late in the season, yet.

Other proven methods to boost your immunity are:

  • Exercise.  One study has shown the flu shot works better in older patients if they walk regularly.  It boosts their immune response.  Similar responses have been found with Tai Chi and muscle building exercises.
  • Good nutrition.  A variety of fruits and vegetables is the best way to get the ideal combination of immunity boosting vitamins and minerals.
  • Physical and emotional stress weaken your immunity.  Get plenty of rest and sleep, keep a positive outlook and don’t overwork, or even over-exercise.  Laughter helps, as does meditation and prayer.
  • Don’t smoke or be around the second hand variety.  Children, especially, should avoid exposure.

For more details on these proven methods, and more, read Dr. Elizabeth Pector’s totally non-boring article titled, oddly enough, “How to Boost Your Immunity”.

Next post, I will write about which nutritional supplements have been shown to boost immunity against the colds and flu.

I know you have other valuable tips.  Please share.

Photo by James Gathany.

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15 Responses to “How to boost your immunity during the cold and flu season”

  1. Mark Says:

    Fantastic tips! Thank you!

    Marks last blog post..10 Things to Stop Doing in 2009 and….

  2. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Thanks Mark, Welcome back from the holidays.

  3. Steve Parker, M.D. Says:

    Thanks, Dr. Hubbard. I can’t think of anything to add to your list. My recollection is that Linus Pauling’s vitamin C theory was disproved years ago.

    I wish more people realized that antibiotics don’w work on colds. We’re learning also that they don’t help many cases of sinusitis, either.


    Steve Parker, M.D.s last blog post..Fat Cell Turnover: Implications for Weight Loss

  4. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    I agree on both counts, Dr. Parker.

  5. Blake Says:

    More reasons to keep eating right and exercising in 2009! Thanks Dr. Hubbard.

    Blakes last blog post..HCG Injections for Weight Loss? Nope.

  6. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Thanks Blake. Loved your post on HCG injections

  7. Dr. J Says:

    Right on target as always!!

    Sometimes I feel that the true measure of our immune system is not so much whether or not we get a cold, but how we respond to having it.

    Dr. Js last blog post..Nibbles for kids: Not enough obesity diagnoses, gastric bypass and diabetes and another danger of skipping breakfast

  8. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    How true Dr. J

  9. Judy Rodman Says:

    Ok here’s a weird tip I’ve been given and want your take on it:

    A woman I know swears she avoids colds her daughter brings home by swabbing her nostrals out with hydrogen peroxide (3% garden variety)to keep the bugs from settling in.

    Hmm… has this got any science behind it?

    Judy Rodmans last blog post..Power, Path & Performance vocal training reviewed and vocal production tips shared

  10. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Judy, you sure have interesting questions. I will try to get this answered as a question for the print magazine.

    I know of no studies, but will keep looking. I am sure the thought is it kills any sneaky bacteria or viruses. I would be careful to avoid damage to the fragile nasal lining. If there is any redness or irritation in the nostrils from this, it should be stopped.

    I will see if I can get more details.


  11. Sagan Says:

    Drinking white or green tea seems to help a lot. Although maybe it just appears to have improved my immune system because I started exercising more and eating better at the same time as I started drinking tons of the stuff… thanks for the tips!

    Sagans last blog post..Life Lessons: Reflections

  12. jhubbard Says:

    Thanks Sagan. Tea has a lot of benefits. I will have to check to see if it has been associated with boosting immunity.

  13. James Hubbard’s My Family Doctor Blog » Blog Archive » Boost your immune system: supplements, herbs, vitamins to treat colds Says:

    [...] have a cure for the annoying and frequent set of viruses that cause colds.  A few days back, I wrote about some general tried and true methods to increase your immunity that have good studies… and don’t cost money.   They should be your base for protection.  Only implement other [...]

  14. Plan to Get Sick « The Mama Bee Says:

    [...] My Family Doctor’s How to Boost Your Immunity During Cold Season [...]

  15. James Hubbard’s My Family Doctor Blog » Blog Archive » Thank you! (Plus, find new health, mom and baby-boomer blogs) Says:

    [...] The Mama Bee: “Plan to Get Sick” (linked to post on how to boost your immunity) [...]

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