As seasonal colds, flu, and coronavirus are circulating, two things are critical for protecting ourselves and our communities: 1) taking excellent care of our own health and 2) making choices that reduce the odds of exposing ourselves and others to these viruses. What follows is a list of specific ways we can do those two things. Taking these steps can help to protect everyone in your community and help improve your odds of staying healthy or minimizing the impact if you do get sick.
It is important to remember that while the coronavirus is often a mild illness in people who are younger and healthier, it can be quite severe for the elderly and those with compromised immunity, respiratory issues, or other underlying medical conditions. Even if you feel confident in your own immune system, it is important to consider those who might be at greater risk and to take measures to help them stay safe as well. It is also important to consider the capacity of our health care facilities and the potential strain on health care workers. The more we can slow down the spread of the virus, the more likely we are to prevent our clinics and hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with treating too many cases simultaneously. This helps people seriously ill with covid-19 or flu to get better care, preserves health care resources for patients with other conditions who also need care, and reduces the likelihood of overtaxing medical staff. These viruses will continue to spread, but we can all do our part to reduce the risk to ourselves and our communities.
Disclaimer: This list of tips and resources does not in any way constitute medical advice, nor does it substitute for medical consultation and care with a licensed medical practitioner. Use common sense in determining whether implementing these tips is appropriate for you, and consult your doctor if you have any questions, concerns, or symptoms of illness.
- PRIORITIZE GETTING PLENTY OF SLEEP. Our immune systems function much better when we are well-rested, and not getting enough sleep seriously impairs immune function. Stanford sleep researcher Matthew Walker recommends giving yourself a non-negotiable sleep opportunity of at least 8 hours every night. That means getting in bed and shutting off the lights at least 8 hours before you plan to get up the next morning.
- BREATHE THROUGH YOUR NOSE, NOT YOUR MOUTH. Our noses do a much better job than our mouths of filtering out viruses and bacteria and preventing them from getting deeper into the body.
- WASH YOUR HANDS FREQUENTLY AND THOROUGHLY. Wash your hands before you eat and every time you return to your home or workplace after being somewhere where people gather (stores, restaurants, entertainment venues, public transit, places of worship, etc). Use soap and warm water and rub the lather in for at least 20 seconds (you can sing the birthday song to yourself twice to time it). Make sure you wash the palms, backs of the hands, between the fingers, around the nail beds, and under the nails. Here’s a short video of the WHO’s recommended handwashing technique.
If you don’t have access to soap and water, you can use a hand sanitizer. Check the ingredients – according to the CDC it needs to have an alcohol content of at least 60%. Important note about hand sanitizer: just like washing with soap and water, you need to rub it all over your hands for at least 20 seconds for it to be effective. It is not only the ingredients in the sanitizer, but also the friction of rubbing your hands that gets the job done.
- DO NOT TOUCH YOUR FACE WHEN OUT AND ABOUT. Touching your eyes, nose, and mouth can transfer any germs you may have picked up on your hands to your mucous membranes, where pathogens have an easier time getting into the body. Here’s a great article on the importance of not touching your face.
- FREQUENTLY WIPE DOWN YOUR PHONE AND OTHER HIGH-TOUCH SURFACES (DOORKNOBS, FAUCET HANDLES, ETC.). Keeping these types of surfaces clean and disinfected helps reduce transmission of pathogens.
- STAY WELL HYDRATED. Dry noses and lungs are more susceptible to pathogens. Having enough salivary output protects our mouth and digestive organs from pathogens.
- PRACTICE BREATHING FULLY. Breathing from our diaphragm keeps things moving in our lungs and makes it less likely that phlegm and pathogens will settle in pockets of our lungs that don’t get enough movement. Often when we are stressed, our breathing becomes shallow and our muscles tighten, preventing our lungs from expanding fully. Breathing all the way down to the bottom of our lungs is great for reducing stress and improving oxygenation as well as preventing illness. Breathing at an even rate of 5-6 breaths per minute has been shown to induce relaxation, calm the sympathetic (fight or flight) branch of the nervous system, and support healthy heart function and immune response. This simple breath technique is called coherent breathing. Here’s a peaceful, relaxing video that guides you through the practice with audio cues to help pace your breathing.
- HUM TO COMBAT GERMS AND MUCUS. Humming generates nitric oxide and mixes it with the air in your sinuses. Nitric oxide is anti-microbial and helps to disperse phlegm. Keeping your mouth closed the whole time, take a deep breath and then hum as you exhale all the way. If you have any sinus congestion, play with raising and lowering the pitch of your hum until you feel the vibration in the area of your head, throat, or chest where you are most congested. Do this for 5-10 minutes at a time, as many times a day as you would like. This is good for prevention and especially helpful if you start to have symptoms of sinus congestion.
- MAKE TIME FOR RELAXATION AND STRESS MANAGEMENT TECHNIQUES. Life happens. There will always be stressful events that trigger our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response). That is ok and can even be useful in some circumstances. The important thing is to give ourselves the chance to calm down and shift back into parasympathetic activation (rest and digest mode), which allows our immune defenses to work much better. So whether it’s a hot bath, playing with a pet, stretching, listening to calming music, using a meditation app, or following along with a guided relaxation or self-hypnosis video on YouTube, make time on a regular basis to do whatever soothes your nervous system and helps you relax.
- PRACTICE QI GONG MOVEMENTS THAT STRENGTHEN YOUR RESPIRATORY SYSTEM AND BOOST IMMUNITY. Qi Gong (pronounced “chee gung”) is the term for practices that combine movement and breath to improve health and wellbeing. Many forms of qi gong are based on Chinese medicine principles and can be used on their own or in addition to acupuncture and herbal treatments. Here are two short videos of simple qi gong exercises you can do at home to strengthen your lungs and support your immune system. These videos are available for free on YouTube.
- GET REGULAR, MODERATE EXERCISE. Regular exercise helps keep our immune system healthy and builds lung capacity and endurance. Breaking a sweat on a regular basis allows our body to excrete toxins that don’t get cleared as well through other channels. Just make sure you’re not overtraining and exhausting yourself. Remember, we always want to leave some energy in the tank in case your body needs to mount a big immune response.
- HAVE YOUR DOCTOR CHECK YOUR VITAMIN D LEVELS. ASK IF SUPPLEMENTING WITH VITAMIN D, C, AND / OR ZINC IS APPROPRIATE FOR YOU. These nutrients are important for robust immune function. If your levels are below the normal range, ask your doctor to prescribe an appropriate level of supplementation. After you’ve been taking the supplements for a while, ask your doctor to re-test you to see if your levels have come back to normal.
- FOCUS ON EATING FRESH PRODUCE GROWN WITH MINIMAL TO NO PESTICIDES AND MEATS AND SEAFOOD THAT HAVE BEEN RAISED WITHOUT ANTIBIOTICS. AVOID PROCESSED FOODS. This will serve you well whether or not it’s cold and flu season, however eating this way is particularly important when we want our immune systems functioning optimally. Pesticide and antibiotic residue in foods can interfere with the health and balance of our gut flora, which are critical for our immunity. Processed foods often lack nutrients and include high amounts of sugar and unhealthy processed vegetable oils, which can diminish our immune defenses.
- AVOID FOODS THAT CAUSE DAMPNESS. In Chinese medicine, dampness is any overaccumulation of fluid in the body – swelling, cysts, excess phlegm and mucus, too much fluid in the lungs (pneumonia) are all forms of dampness. Chinese medicine doctors treating the novel coronavirus in China have classified it as a “damp plague” – a pathogen that thrives in damp environments. By making our bodies less damp on the inside, we make ourselves less hospitable hosts to this particular virus. Sugar, dairy, wheat, fruit juices, tropical fruits, peanuts and greasy fried foods are some of the most common dampening foods in the Western diet. Avoiding overconsumption of these foods helps prevent us from becoming too damp. Eating and drinking cold and raw things can also create dampness by overburdening our digestion, so it’s best to only eat and drink things that are room temperature or warmer, and to predominantly consume cooked foods. So ask for your drinks without ice, opt for steamed or roasted veggies over salads, and trade that smoothie for a bowl of soup or a hot tea. For more extensive information on regulating your internal environment to make yourself a less hospitable host for pathogens, I recommend the book Enlightenweight: Cultivate the Garden Within written by Doctor of Oriental Medicine Andrew Miles.
- EAT PLENTY OF MUSHROOMS. Mushrooms contain beta glucans, which are fantastic for supporting your immune system. Button mushrooms are ok, but if you can get wild ones, or varieties like shiitake, maitake, and oyster these are likely to be more effective. You can also get mixes of dried wild mushrooms that you can add to soups or soak in hot water to make mushroom broth. In Chinese medicine, mushrooms are used therapeutically to help eliminate dampness, so they are great allies in helping you avoid pathogens like the coronavirus, which thrive in damp environments.
- USE YOUR SPICE RACK. Many of the herbs and spices in your spice rack have antimicrobial properties and can also help to eliminate dampness. Basil, black pepper, cardamom, clove, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel seed, garlic, ginger, marjoram, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, rosemary, and thyme are all examples of spices that can support digestion, fight germs, and decrease dampness. These are all great to use in the preventative phase to keep you strong and resistant to infection.
- KEEP THE AIR IN YOUR ENVIRONMENT CLEAN AND APPROPRIATELY HUMIDIFIED. Help your lungs stay healthy by changing the filters on your HVAC system regularly to avoid circulating dust and mold. If forced air heat is drying out your inside air, consider using a humidifier, but be sure to clean it regularly and don’t over-humidify, as you want to hit the sweet spot between too dry and too damp. If there are moldy or extra damp areas in your home, consider a dehumidifier for those areas. If someone in your home is sick, you may also want to consider an air purifier, which can help to filter dust, mold, and viruses out of the air, depending on the model. I use Blueair air purifiers at home and at my office. Again, you’ll need to clean or change the filters regularly to keep them effective.
- USE ESSENTIAL OILS TO BOOST YOUR IMMUNITY. This can be done in a number of ways.
1) You can put a few drops of Eucalyptus Radiata, Peppermint, Rosemary, and/or Tea Tree oils on a cotton ball, tissue, or handkerchief and keep it with you. Tuck it into your collar or scarf, or carry it in your bag or pocket. Periodically bring it close to your face and take some nice, deep breaths to allow the antimicrobial properties of the oils to benefit your sinuses and lungs. You can also use aromatherapy inhaler tubes like these. Put 15-20 drops of an essential oil or blend on the cotton wick, seal it up in the plastic tube, and carry it with you. To use, remove the cover and hold near your nose to inhale the oils through the holes in the top (don’t put it up your nose, just hold it near your face). Inhaling essential oils using one of these methods is particularly good to do after having been near someone who is showing symptoms.
2) You can also put these oils in a diffuser (I use the Quooz) or make a room spray by adding the oils to water in a spritzer bottle, using about 15 drops of oil per 1 ounce of water. Make sure to use a dark-tinted amber or blue glass bottle or an aluminum one, as exposure to light will degrade the oils.
3) To create a steam treatment in your shower, run the hot water for a few minutes, then put 2-3 drops of essential oil on the floor of the tub and resume running the hot water.
4) To do a steam inhalation, place 1-2 drops of essential oil at the bottom of a large bowl and then fill the bowl with hot water. Drape a towel over your head and lean over the bowl, inhaling the steam for about 10 minutes. Be sure to move your face toward the surface of the water slowly – getting too close too fast can result in a steam burn inside your nose. Have tissues on hand during this process, as this process will clear a lot of congestion.
VERY IMPORTANT SAFETY NOTES ON ESSENTIAL OIL USE
Never use an essential oil on your skin straight out of the bottle without diluting it in a neutral carrier oil like jojoba, coconut, or sweet almond oil first. Using oils on the skin is beyond the scope of this list, and I recommend doing your research and consulting a reputable source before using the oils topically.
Not all essential oils are safe for children and pets. Never use essential oils on or near babies or very young children without the supervision of a certified aromatherapist who specializes in pediatric care. For older children, the Plant Therapy brand of essential oils specifically labels their oils and blends that are “Kid Safe.”
It is important to use only organic essential oils from a trusted source. Because the oils are highly concentrated, any pesticides that may be on the plants also become highly concentrated in the distillation process. I choose organic oils from these sources: Pompeii Street Aromatherapy, Mountain Rose Herbs, Ananda Essential Oils, or Plant Therapy.
- IF YOU AREN’T FEELING WELL, STAY HOME UNLESS YOU NEED TO GO OUT FOR MEDICAL CARE. This is perhaps the best thing you can do for your community. For your own sake, getting plenty of rest and not pushing yourself to “power through” a viral illness can reduce the severity of the illness and preserve the energy your body needs for fighting off the virus. For the sake of others, you’ll be doing the world a favor by protecting everyone you might come in contact with from exposure to your germs. Remember that while coronavirus can be mild in young and healthy people, it can be much more severe for people who are elderly or immune compromised. We are all responsible for protecting each other, and our decisions can impact a much wider circle than we might imagine. If you are sick and need to go out for medical care, this is the time to wear a mask, fitted tightly around your nose and mouth, to help protect others from the virus. Be sure to call ahead to the medical facility you are going to so that their staff can prepare themselves for your arrival with appropriate protective gear.
- IF YOU ARE A SUPERVISOR OR AN EMPLOYER, ENCOURAGE YOUR STAFF TO STAY HOME WHEN SICK, AND SEND THEM HOME IF THEY ARRIVE SICK. This helps your staff recover more quickly, limits the spread of germs to yourself and others in your workspace, and protects your customers and clients as well as your relationship with them. In the current environment, people will not appreciate coming into your place of business and having to interact with staff who are showing signs of illness.
- COUGH / SNEEZE INTO A TISSUE, DISPOSE OF IT RIGHT AWAY, AND THEN WASH OR SANITIZE YOUR HANDS. COUGH / SNEEZE INTO YOUR ELBOW IF YOU DON’T HAVE A TISSUE AVAILABLE. The coronavirus is primarily spread in two ways: through respiratory droplets when an infected person near you coughs or sneezes and from touching surfaces where the virus remains after an infected person has touched the same surface. Therefore, it is critically important for anyone who is sick to help prevent the spread of the virus by these methods. If you’re out in public and do need to cough or sneeze, cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue (best practice) or the crook of your elbow. If you use the tissue method, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer as soon as possible.
- USE ALTERNATIVES TO HANDSHAKES. Invite your colleagues to develop a culture of substituting elbow bumps, nods, or bows in place of handshakes to reduce hand-to-hand contact. If you do need to shake hands, don’t touch your face again until after you have washed your hands or used hand sanitizer.
- AVOID TOUCHING BUTTONS, LIGHT SWITCHES, TOUCH SCREENS, DOOR HANDLES, ETC. DIRECTLY WITH YOUR FINGERTIPS. Try using your elbow or knuckle to press elevator buttons or flip light switches. To avoid touching public touch screens directly, you can carry a stylus designed for use with electronics and disinfect it regularly. Whenever possible, open doors with your hip or elbow rather than grasping the handle or knob.
- PRACTICE “SOCIAL DISTANCING.” Whenever possible while you are out and about, try to maintain a 4-6 foot distance from other people, particularly those showing signs of illness. Respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes can travel a few feet before gravity pulls them down and out of the air. Keeping this kind of distance will not always be practical depending on the situation, but do your best when it is possible.