Skip to main content

You make this possible. Support our independent, nonprofit newsroom today.

Give Now

With flu season looming, these tips will help boost your immune system

Cold and flu season is on the way, in step with Covid Winter #3. Which begs the question, what are some best practices to prep our immune system to fight off viruses during our long, dark winter? Dr. Helen Chu is an infectious disease physician with the University of Washington School of Medicine. She shared her thoughts on the coming season with KUOW’s Kim Malcolm.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Kim Malcolm: First off, you were quoted in a New York Times article recently. You said it's a myth that being cold will make you more likely to get sick, but I feel like that's true. Why am I wrong?

Dr. Helen Chu: Being cold happens at a time when the weather gets colder, and you gather inside, and the air gets drier. That really makes it more likely for respiratory viruses to circulate and infect you, especially when you're in these crowded settings indoors. Being outside protects you from getting sick.

The Times article listed four things we can do to stay healthy this winter. The first one is to get active. Why is that important?

Being active has a couple of benefits. First, it gets you outside often. That makes you at less risk to acquire a respiratory viral infection. We know that exercise boosts your immune system, and then it decreases your risk of the conditions that make you more likely to get sick, like diabetes and obesity.

The piece also mentions why we shouldn't underestimate the power of rest. How does that work?

We know that people who are sleep deprived, such as people who do shift work, have a very high risk of cardiovascular outcomes, like heart attacks. The thought is that chronic sleep deprivation suppresses your immune system's ability to fight infection.

The next recommendation is a healthy diet. We always hear this from physicians. What's your definition of a healthy diet?

I think healthy simply means well-balanced. So, making sure that you don't just eat comfort foods, but also have lots of fruits and vegetables that have vitamins in them that will help you help your body fight infection. Having a healthy diet helps boost your immune system. The opposite of that is people who are drinking large amounts of alcohol or smoking, those are things that we know suppress your immune system.

You end by saying the precautions we’ve been living with for the pandemic are still valid. Talk to us about that.

I think we know that with Covid-19, all of the mitigation measures that were put in place really led to a massive reduction in the number of cases of flu and other respiratory viruses that are circulating. Those things work. The measures that we can continue to use include things like wearing a mask when you're indoors in crowded settings or staying home when you're sick, and handwashing, and vaccines.

We've been hearing warnings from some public health officials about how this could be the year that we see a 'twindemic,' with Covid and flu infections happening at the same time. In your opinion, is this the year?

It seems like it is. We know that Australia had a fairly early and severe flu season. Often, what we see in the southern hemisphere comes to pass in the northern hemisphere. If you look at what's happening in the southeast United States, you can see the number of cases of influenza-like illness starting to go up already. And we usually see those numbers start to come up several weeks to months later. So, it is possible that we will have an early flu season.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

Why you can trust KUOW