Winter conjures peaceful images of light snowfall and bundled pedestrians. Trouble is, when long, dark, dreary days combine with germ-infested classrooms, the body gets stressed. Add up the cold facts and it’s no wonder so many educators get sick over winter break.
Viruses spread when infected cough or sneeze droplets move through the air, or when you touch contaminated surfaces and then touch your mouth or nose, explains Amy Hendel, PA, author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families. Such illnesses are more easily transmitted indoors where bacteria can take hold and grow.
Teachers are especially vulnerable, since they’re exposed to all of the snot gurgling, fevers, coughs, sneezing and otherwise aerosolized colds, flus and viruses that kids carry, adds Victor Sierpina, MD, professor of integrative medicine at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas.
Here, we offer six tips for surviving the dark days of winter unscathed:
1. Get your D. As the weather turns colder, most of us spend more time indoors. In winter months, when sunlight is scarce and we’re buried beneath layers of clothing, it’s a good idea to take a vitamin D supplement, says Sierpina, particularly since up to 60 percent of Americans fall short on this immune-boosting nutrient. In fact, after reviewing the research on cold and flu, scientists surmised that the increase in cold and flu during winter is linked to low levels of vitamin D. Recent research also links low D levels with depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
2. Turn on a comedy. “The term ‘laughter is the best medicine’ probably wasn’t far off the mark,” says Hendel. According to researchers at Loma Linda University Medical Center, laughter, or even anticipating a laugh (by, say, waiting for a punch line), increases feel-good endorphins, reduces stress levels and boosts immunity. Watch a comedy, share funny stories with friends, play in the rain or dance with your best friend. Anything that elicits a good laugh—even if it’s a YouTube video—is time well spent.
3. Strike a pose. No matter what the weather, experts agree it’s important to stretch your muscles to help prevent injury. It’s just that falls are more common when it’s cold outside (rain, ice and powder-packed snow are the usual culprits). Practicing yoga and stretching daily can help you stay on your feet. “Even when you’re standing in a check out line, you can practice balancing on one foot, then the other,” explains Hendel. A bonus: Being more fit may allow your body to accommodate a fall so you’re less likely to sustain an injury.
4. Moisturize. In the bitter cold of winter, beneath layers of warm clothing, it’s not uncommon to neglect your skin. And that’s a shame, since the skin is not only the largest organ in the body, it’s also a point of entry for infection. Build a barrier between your skin and the elements by applying emollient lotions and creams while your skin is still damp. And don’t forget your hands. “The skin on your hands is thinner,” says Hendel. If you’re an educator, chances are you frequently use antibacterial soap and hand washes, not to mention hand sanitizers, which are drying. A good nighttime trick: Apply a thin layer of Vaseline or heavy cream and sport cotton gloves while you sleep, suggests Hendel.
5. Get vaccinated. Get a flu shot every year, advises Sierpina, and ask your doctor if you qualify for the pneumonia shot. Teachers and students can be vectors of transmission, so getting vaccinated should be a priority among the school community—and that includes all staff members. “Custodians and lunch providers can also spread the flu easily,” says Hendel. Just keep in mind it takes several weeks for the vaccine to stimulate the antibody productions necessary for protection, so get your shots as soon as they’re available.
6. Meditate. “There’s a clear association with prolonged stress and diminished immunity. Regular self care and stress management can help protect you from infectious disease as well as more serious conditions like cancer and heart disease,” says Sierpina, who recommends developing a practice of mindfulness, mental imagery, relaxation and other forms of meditation. Don’t have 10-15 minutes? Close your eyes for five minutes and breathe deeply. Sometimes that’s all it takes to calm and clear the mind.