Bring it, winter. We’re ready. This may be the sickest time of year, but we’re armed to the max with germ-fighting tips, immune-building tricks, and a truck-full of antiseptic wipes. You’ve been warned.

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“Winter is coming” is more than just an ominous warning on “Game of Thrones.” For families trying to make it through the winter months with as few sick days and missed school days as possible, prevention truly is the best medicine.

If you’re looking to have a flu- and fever-free year (and who isn’t?), check out these tips on how to stay healthy when temperatures turn frigid.

1. Vaccinate (It’s not too late!)

While most doctors recommend getting the flu vaccine as soon as it’s available (usually late September/early October), this recommendation is based around the idea of building up immunity before going into winter. But even if it’s January and you still haven’t gotten your flu vaccine, there’s no time like the present.

The flu can be very serious at times, especially for young children and the elderly, so all family members older than age 6 months should get vaccinated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 million Americans were hospitalized due to flu in the 2014 to 2015 winter months.

2. Be a hand-washing champ

Experts (and doting grandmothers) tell you to wash your hands for a reason. Hand-washing can be the single easiest and most effective way to prevent getting sick because it rinses away all the germs you or your kids pick up from the playground, grocery cart, handshake, doorknob, or other common surfaces.

But keep in mind: There’s a difference between hand-washing and proper hand-washing. Good hand-washing habits include washing for at least 20 seconds and carefully scrubbing all surfaces, and paying special attention to the backs of your hands and fingernails.

Incentivize the whole family to get in on the germ-fighting game. Load up on fun novelty soaps or decorated containers that entice younger kids to soap up. Hold a weekly competition and award the title of “hand-washing champion” to one family member for modeling top-notch skills. Or make it a competition of dinnertime trivia on facts about washing hands.

3. Steer clear of crowds

If you have a very young baby at home, avoiding crowded restaurants and malls for the first few months of life can make your infant less likely to fall ill. While you shouldn’t quarantine yourself from the rest of the world, having friends over instead of going to a public place may be preferred until winter subsides.

If you do have to make frequent trips with your little one outdoors, it’s OK to tell strangers who want to touch your baby that you’d rather they didn’t. Let them know you’re looking out for your baby’s health, and they’ll understand.

4. Load up on greens and grains

While there are plenty of supplements out there that promise to keep you flu-free, there’s no proven miracle product you can take to prevent getting sick. However, you can give your immune system its best chance for fending off colds by eating a healthy diet so your body has plenty of vitamins and minerals to create immune system cells.

According to Harvard University, deficiencies in certain micronutrients, including vitamins A, B-6, C, and E as well as copper, iron, folic acid, selenium, and zinc, seem to correlate with illness in animals.

Eating a healthful diet full of nutrient-rich greens, vitamin-filled vegetables, and colorful fruits, as well as whole grains, will usually give your immune system the ammo it needs to stay well.

Check out our recommendations for the top foods that boost your immune system »

5. Stress less, rest more

Two well-known enemies of the immune system are stress and sleeplessness, and they often work hand-in-hand. Taking steps to reduce your stress and get a good night’s sleep will make you less likely to get sick.

Encourage teamwork at home to reduce stress for all family members. A chore chart where each person does his or her share of laundry, dishwashing, floor sweeping, and other key tasks can provide a more relaxed and healthy home environment.

Another option is setting a daily “screens off” time, during which everyone (including the adults) turns off phones, tablets, laptops, and yes, even the television. Reducing these intense stimuli can ensure better sleep at night as well as less stress overall.

6. Embrace your inner ‘clean queen’

Thorough and regular cleaning of key areas in your home and office can help to prevent illness. It’s not uncommon for a co-worker to touch and/or share your telephone, mouse, or keypad, for example. Try purchasing disinfectant wipes and start every day by cleaning these common surfaces. At home, computers, cell phones, the dinner table, and doorknobs are all excellent places to clean as well.

You don’t have to go to extremes, but keep a bottle of hand sanitizer stashed in your kitchen or workplace lunch room to make cleaning hands more convenient. Keep travel-sized bottles as well in your desk, purse, or car. The more accessible it is, the more likely you are to use it.

7. Say bye-bye to bad habits

No matter how much you cherish your evening glass of pinot or enjoy binge-watching your favorite show while sprawled on the sofa, certain habits can lower your immune system and make getting sick more likely. Among the most notable culprits: smoking, excessive alcohol (more than one drink per day for women and more than two per day for men), and lack of exercise.

Replace your cocktail with a tasty mocktail. Bundle up and go for an evening walk before your TV marathon. And remember that kicking a few bad habits can keep you (and your loved ones) in good health all winter long.


Rachel Nall is a Tennessee-based critical care nurse and freelance writer. She began her writing career with the Associated Press in Brussels, Belgium. Although she enjoys writing about a variety of topics, healthcare is her practice and passion. Nall is a full-time nurse at a 20-bed intensive care unit focusing primarily on cardiac care. She enjoys educating her patients and readers on how to live healthier and happier lives.