VCU HR Well-Being blog

Giving VCU employees the wellness resources they need to be healthy both on and off campus

Temperatures are dropping. Do you feel like you’re more likely to get sick in the winter months? While this may be true, it isn’t directly caused by cold temperatures. Winter weather forces many of us to spend more time inside, closer to one another in drier air. These conditions give viruses and germs more opportunities to spread and make us sick. 

The winter months are typically cold and flu season (flu often peaks between December and February). Last winter, the virus that causes COVID-19 also had a large “wave” of increased spread, and the very contagious and infectious virus (and its variants) will likely continue to spread this winter, alongside flu viruses.

Before you get that scratchy feeling in your throat, there ARE some things you can do to boost your immune system’s ability to keep you feeling healthy this winter. Some of these winter wellness tips might feel like advice you’ve heard before, but that’s because they’re proven ways to keep your immune system healthy. 

Don’t smoke.

Smoking harms your immune system and makes you less able to fight off infection if you catch a virus or bacterial illness. There’s evidence that smoking might harm your immune system in other ways, too – people who smoke are at higher risk for several immune and autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis. If you or someone you love already smoke, it’s important to know that it’s not too late – quitting, while incredibly difficult – DOES allow your immune system to bounce back. According to the experts, when people quit smoking, their immune system is no longer exposed to tar and nicotine, and it becomes stronger, making them less likely to get sick.  

Eat lots of fruits and vegetables.

We know, you’ve heard this one before. But the immune-boosting benefit of a well-balanced diet filled with fruits and vegetables is real. While we don’t recommend one cure-all “superfood” to make you an immune superhuman, fruits and vegetables DO provide nutrients (including beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E) that can boost immune function. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, no single fruit or vegetable provides all of the nutrients you need to be healthy, so make sure to eat plenty every day. Eating enough nutrients as part of a varied diet is required for the health and function of all cells.

Exercise regularly.

Scientists have found “compelling links” between regular exercise and the health of your immune system. While we still have a lot to learn about exactly how exercise might be boosting your immune system, it is clear that it promotes overall health, is very good for your heart, and can make you feel more energetic. If you’re looking to stay well, regular moderate exercise is a good idea. 

If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation.

Drinking too much alcohol can weaken the immune system and make the body susceptible to infections like colds, flu and other illnesses. Moderate drinking can be healthy, but not for everyone. People need to weigh their individual risks and benefits. See other ways that alcohol affects your health from the experts at the Cleveland Clinic.

Get enough sleep.

Did you know that your immune system revs up during sleep? Experts think this might be when the most important healing happens. While you rest, your immune system is at work responding to invaders like viruses and bacteria. If you don’t get enough sleep, you may not be mounting a strong immune response. Sleep is also important after vaccination to make sure that your immune system has a chance to build the protective immunity triggered by the vaccine. 

Take steps to protect your health. 

Like avoiding crowds and wearing a mask indoors in public if you are in a community that has a high number of COVID cases (even if you’re vaccinated!). You’re less likely to get sick if you come into contact with fewer disease-causing viruses and bacteria. Give your immune system a break by cleaning and disinfecting your home, washing your hands well and frequently with soap and water, wearing a mask as recommended by public health, and social distancing! 

Try to minimize stress.

Easier said than done, but it’s important to take what steps you can to stay balanced and relaxed. There’s evidence that stress actually decreases the number of lymphocytes in your body – those are the white blood cells that help fight off infection. This puts you at higher risk for viral infections – like the common cold, flu, and COVID-19. 

Keep current with all recommended vaccines.

It is recommended that everyone 6 months and older get a flu vaccine every year. While the best time to get the flu vaccine is before the end of October, if you haven’t gotten one yet this year, it’s not too late. You want to make sure you get vaccinated at least two weeks before the flu starts spreading in your community (which could happen at any time – flu is unpredictable!). While last flu season was mild because of mask-wearing and social distancing, we’re already seeing an increase in flu spread this year. Everyone 5+ should also get vaccinated against COVID-19 (if you’re not already). 

We have more evidence that shows how vaccines help your immune system fight off infection than for any other tip on this list. Vaccines boost your immune system by stimulating the production of immune cells called antibodies. These antibodies are specific – a flu vaccination gives your body the information it needs to create antibodies to fight strains of the flu virus. The COVID-19 vaccine gives your body the instructions to create antibodies to COVID-19. When and if you come into contact with a virus that you have been vaccinated against, your body is as ready as possible to defend against a known invader. There’s data that show that for some illnesses including COVID-19, the immunity from the vaccine is as strong or stronger than the “natural” immunity of having been infected – and you can get it without ever having to have a very risky (and uncomfortable) COVID-19 infection, long COVID or MIS. Learn more about how vaccines work here. Find out more about which vaccines are recommended for you and your loved ones here


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