7 Good Habits to Boost your Immune System

By Jean Cherry, RN, MBA
7 Good Habits to Boost your Immune System

As cold and flu season approaches, many people experience stuffy noses, sneezing and coughing.

Flu season starts in October and lasts until May, with peaks in December and February. What are the chances of catching the flu? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that between 5–20% of the U.S. population gets the flu each year, and even more people will experience a cold, with adults averaging 2–3 colds per year. Children get even more colds than adults. Protect yourself and your family by boosting your immune system—because prevention can be the best medicine.

What is the immune system?

The immune or lymphatic system is not a single entity. Rather, it is a system comprised of bone marrow, spleen, tonsils, thymus, lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels all working together with white blood cells to protect your body against infections and diseases. The immune system operates by producing white blood cells which patrol the body, looking for bacteria, viruses or diseases called antigens. As a white blood cell encounters an antigen, it creates a specific antibody which binds to that specific antigen and destroys it.

Children under 5 years old, pregnant women and people over age 65 years are at higher risk for catching a cold or the flu. Certain illnesses or medications can also weaken your immune system, which can also increase your risk of getting sick. Some examples of illness that can affect your immune system include asthma, diabetes, heart or lung diseases, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), various types of cancer, liver disease, kidney disease and multiple sclerosis. Medications that can impair your immune system may include steroids, cancer chemotherapy and drugs that treat rheumatoid arthritis or psoriasis.

What is the difference between bacteria and viruses?

Most strains of the flu and colds are caused by different types of viruses. Common colds usually last a few days, but the flu can be serious, with complications possibly resulting in hospitalization and death. A virus can have a spiny outside layer or envelope, reproducing itself by infecting cells and taking over their reproductive machinery rather than reproducing itself like bacteria.

A bacteria are a single-celled, fluid-filled organism that is larger than a virus and may have a threadlike structure to move like a tail. There are thousands of types of bacteria living anywhere that can reproduce themselves. Most are harmless to people, with only a few making people sick. Some harmful bacteria cause pneumonia, meningitis, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), foodborne illnesses, sinus infections, bronchitis, urinary tract infections and ear infections.

It's important to note that antibiotics fight bacterial infections, but they do not treat viral illnesses, like colds or the flu. Overuse of antibiotics has caused antibiotic resistance where the bacteria have a decreased sensitivity to antibiotics and are not eliminated by treatment. Two million people suffer from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections each year, and approximately 23,000 people die from the condition.

How can you make your immune system more effective against viruses and bacteria?

There are some effective ways to help your immune system do its job better:

  1. Get vaccinated:
    A vaccine or immunization, made of weakened or inactive cells or similar cells to the illness, enter the body activating the immune system to fight the illness. The vaccine dosage you receive is easier for your body to fight and won't make you sick. The immune system determines how to fight and defeat the antigen, then remembers it in the future. Sometimes your body needs a refresher with booster doses of some vaccines. Other vaccines must be updated due to antigen changes, which is why people need flu shots annually to get the latest version.
  2. Wash your hands:
    Colds and the flu are passed on contaminated surfaces, especially hands. Washing your hands in warm, running water and soap for 20 seconds or more can help control the spread of illness. Teach children to practice effective handwashing at a young age. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth without washing your hands where viruses can enter the body.
  3. Limit contact with people who are sick:
    Stay away from people who have a cold or the flu. Encourage those who are ill to stay away from public places where they can spread illness. Clean kitchen and bathroom counters with disinfectant, especially if someone in your household is ill. Wash children's toys periodically.
  4. Cover your sneeze and cough appropriately:
    When coughing or sneezing, use a tissue, discard it right away and wash your hands to limit the airborne particles causing illness. If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow to cover your mouth without using your hands. Move away from people if you feel a cough or sneeze coming on.
  5. Eat a healthy diet:
    Good nutrition is essential for a strong immune system to protect you against colds, the flu and other health problems. Protein helps your body's defense mechanism. Vitamin A assists with the regulation of the immune system. Vitamin C protects you by stimulating antibody formation to boost immunity. Vitamin E neutralizes free radicals to improve your immune system. Zinc assists the immune system to work as it should and helps with wound healing.
  6. Don't smoke:
    Smoking weakens your immunity against infections as you constantly have to fight against inflammation and damage from tobacco, causing your white blood cell count to remain elevated for a long time. Eventually the risk of heart attacks, stroke and cancer increases. Smoking can also cause more vulnerablability to autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
  7. Get adequate sleep:
    Did you know that if you consistently get less than 8 hours of sleep, the flu vaccine becomes less effective? During sleep, cytokines are produced and released which target infection and inflammation, creating an immune response. The recommended amount of sleep for adults is 7–9 hours, so help your body's ability to respond to cold and flu viruses with adequate rest.

Decrease your chances of getting the cold and flu this season by giving your immune system the best opportunity to fight off illness.

Updated on August 19, 2019


Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018. "Antibiotic/Antimicrobial Resistance." Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 09 10. Accessed 06 21, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/biggest_threats.html.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2014. "Health effects: Find out the health effects of smoking on different parts of your body." Smokefree.gov. Accessed 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/sgr/50th-anniversary/pdfs/fs_smoking_overall_health_508.pdf.

Food and Drug Administration. 2018. "Is It a Cold or the Flu? Prevention, Symptoms, Treatments." FDA. 03 15. Accessed 06 21, 2019. https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/it-cold-or-flu-prevention-symptoms-treatments.

National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. 2017. "MICROBES and VACCINES." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 08 2017. Accessed 06 21, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/bam/diseases/immune/vaccines.html.

Centers for Disese Control and Prevention. 2017. "Your Immune System." Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 06 21, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/bam/diseases/immune/immunesys.html.

National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases. 2019. "Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 02 11. Accessed 06 21, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/.

Qiu, F, C Liang, H Liu, Y Zeng, S Hou, S Huang, X Lai, and Z Dai. 2017. "Impacts of cigarette smoking on immune responsiveness: Up." Oncotarget 268–284.

Qualls N, Levitt A, Kanade N, et al. 2017. "Community Mitigation Guidelines to Prevent Pandemic Influenza - United States, 2017." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention- Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Accessed 06 14, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/rr/rr6601a1.htm?s_cid=rr6601a1_w&c_cid=journal_search_promotion_2018#.

Wolfram, T. 2017. "Protect Your Health with Immune-Boosting Nutrition." Eat Right: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 05 31. Accessed 06 21, 2019. https://www.eatright.org/health/wellness/preventing-illness/protect-your-health-with-immune-boosting-nutrition.

Sleep Foundation: How sleep affects your immunity. Accessed 1 2019, July. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-sleep-affects-your-immunity.

Related articles from