It's a double-whammy: getting sick during the winter combines feeling crummy with many people's less-than-favorite time of year. And if you do have to go outside when you have a cold, you're probably going to be even more uncomfortable.
Getting sick at least once during the winter is, arguably, inevitable. With more and more of us crowded onto planes, buses, trains and offices, the likelihood of contracting a virus is high. But the suggestions below can help you shorten the length of a cold, avoid a repeat or avoid a worsening (a cold-related cough that turns into bronchitis, for example).
Sleep: If you need a concrete reason to turn off the tube or close the computer and get to bed (beyond that it's "good for you") then consider this: Dr. Diwakar Balachandran, director of the Sleep Center at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston told WebMD, "A lot of studies show our T-cells go down if we are sleep deprived, and inflammatory cytokines go up. ... This could potentially lead to the greater risk of developing a cold or flu." And naps count! If you can't get all your zzz's in at night, consider a midday snooze — even 20 minutes can make a difference.
Vitamin C: While some physicians say that vitamin C has a negligible effect on a cold's duration, there are plenty of studies (and anecdotal evidence) that regular doses of ascorbic or calcium ascorbate can affect a cold's strength, and may even prevent them by supporting the body's immune response. Vitamin C is inexpensive, and it's practically impossible to overdose on the stuff, so it's not a big risk to work it into your winter routine. Chewable vitamins and drink mixes like Emergen-C make it easy to incorporate this into your meals or snacks.
[Related: Chow down on these flu-fighting foods]
Echinacea and Goldenseal: The medical jury is still out on whether these two long-used immune-boosting herbs actually help control the duration and intensity of colds (there are studies that go both ways), but natural health practitioners swear by them. They are most effective when used at the first signs of illness, not once you are already sick. Check with your doctor if you are taking any medications (herbs can interact with some of them), but if kept on hand, a liquid tincture — the capsule forms of these herbs are thought by many to be less effective — taken when you have that "uh oh, I feel like I'm coming down with something" feeling might help keep your illness at bay, or be much milder.
Relaxation and stress reduction: Stress is known immune suppressant, so the more often you are stressed out, the less energy your body has to fight disease. Yoga, qigong, tai chi and meditation — or even a night in with the TV and computer off and just a good book and a cup of tea can help your body take the energy it needs to fight off disease.
Exercise: Also fairly well documented is the connection between a strong immune system and regular, heart-pumping exercise. Walking is great, but if you can, make part of your walk brisk. Participation in extreme sports and pushing yourself beyond your limits actually has an immune-damping effect, so the idea here is moderation.
[Related: What you need to know about flu season]
Teetotaling: It's boring but true: alcohol and other drugs decrease immunity. It's no coincidence that it's this time of year, when we are encouraged to indulge the most, that we tend to get sick. A great tactic is to say yes to a glass of wine or a cocktail — but sip it slowly and savor it. You'll be good to drive, avoid illness and keep the pounds off, too. Or choose just one night to have "too many" drinks — like Christmas Eve or New Year's, instead of drinking away Thanksgiving through Jan 1.