The best virus-fighting strategies to adopt this winter

In the thick of cold and flu season, you can take a few vital steps to help boost your immunity and protect against illness.

Experts answer frequently asked questions about how to protect yourself against illness.

To protect against the flu, when should I get vaccinated?

The flu vaccine has been available since April. The immunity it provides does wear off, and you will get the best protection from flu within three to four months of being vaccinated.

As a result, vaccination just before the expected peak flu season – typically between June and September – is recommended. However, being vaccinated at any time is better than not at all.

“The flu vaccine is recommended for everyone to help prevent the flu,” says Australian Medical Association NSW president Kean-Seng Lim. “And it’s never too late in the season to get vaccinated.”

Am I better off taking vitamin C, zinc or echinacea?

Studies investigating how well these protect against or shorten the duration of a cold have produced mixed results.

As a guide, while research shows vitamin C does not protect the average person from catching a cold, taking it routinely and regularly may shorten the length of a cold by a day or two.

Taking zinc within 24 hours of symptoms appearing could also shave a couple of days off your cold, but a zinc supplement may also lower your risk of developing a cold once you have been taking it for a few months.

The jury is still out on echinacea, but if you do take a supplement, experts suggest choosing one that contains the Echinacea purpurea species, which may be more beneficial than other types.

Is wearing a mask or hand washing the best way to avoid catching something?

Health groups, including the World Health Organisation, say frequent hand washing is the most effective way to protect yourself against respiratory viruses, including coronavirus.

In fact, if you are healthy, the advice is to only wear a mask if you are taking care of someone who may have coronavirus — and it is the same for the flu.

Why is washing your hands so important?

Viruses can survive on unwashed hands for 30 minutes and for up to two days on surfaces, so hands are one of the most common ways a virus spreads.

“Getting the virus on your hands by touching an infected surface isn’t a problem in itself,” Dr Lim says.

“But if you rub your eyes, touch your nose or eat something while the virus is on your hands, you’re likely to become infected.

“So, a simple rule is to not touch anything above your shoulders unless you’ve just washed your hands.”

Which is better – handwashing with soap and water, or hand sanitiser?

Both handwashing and sanitising work to kill respiratory viruses provided they are used properly, though a study published last year suggests physically washing hands may be more effective against influenza viruses.

If you are using soap and water, wash your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds, roughly the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice, before drying them completely.

For hand sanitisers, as well as choosing one that contains at least 60 per cent alcohol, use it liberally and rub it into your hands for at least 20 seconds until they are dry.

Should I use a hanky or tissues?

The Department of Health recommends using disposable tissues rather than handkerchiefs, which can store a virus, to blow your nose or contain a cough or sneeze.

An effective alternative is coughing or sneezing into your elbow. When you do use a tissue, bin it immediately before washing your hands thoroughly.

“It’s important for every member of your household to know how to sneeze safely, so that if one of you does get sick, you can avoid everyone catching it,” Dr Lim says.

Written by Karen Fittall.