Because some types of cancer and its treatments can weaken or suppress your immune system, you may be more susceptible to infections and have a harder time recovering from them when they occur. That’s why taking measures to bolster your immune system and prevent exposure to potentially harmful germs is so important.
Here are ten things you can do to protect yourself from germs and fight off infections when they occur.
Practice good hand hygiene.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that up to 16 percent of respiratory infections and the vast majority of foodborne illnesses can be prevented by the simple act of washing hands with soap and water.
When washing your hands, be sure to lather well and rub your hands together for a good 20 seconds, getting in all the cracks and crevices, such as between your fingers and under your fingernails. Then rinse well and dry your hands using an air dryer or a clean towel or paper towel.
If possible, use a paper towel to shut off the water faucet and to open the bathroom door, particularly if you’re in a public restroom, because these surfaces have been found to be among the most contaminated with germs.
Get plenty of sleep.
Studies are increasingly showing that sleep can affect both mental and physical health, with inadequate sleep increasing the risk of chronic diseases like cancer and impairing everything from memory to immune function. Some evidence suggests that lack of sleep can make you more likely to catch a cold, flu, and other viruses.
There is also evidence that once an infection is present, sleep levels can affect your body’s ability to fight that infection. So, as you can see, sleep is very important.
Get a flu shot.
Because cancer and its treatments weaken the immune system, you’re more susceptible to both contracting the flu and suffering serious problems as a result of it. For this reason, the American Cancer Society recommends flu shots for people with cancer unless there is some reason that the shot shouldn’t be administered (such as the cancer treatment regimen prohibiting it).
Before getting a flu shot, be sure to get the green light from your oncologist or primary-care physician.
Engage in moderate physical activity.
Studies indicate that engaging in moderate physical activity can improve immune function, enabling your body to fight off bacterial and viral infections.
The key, however, is to do moderate-intensity exercise, not vigorous exercise, because the latter has been shown to increase the risk of infections. An easy way to gauge exercise intensity is by doing the talk test.
At the moderate level, you should be able to talk clearly during the activity, but not be able to sing, whereas at the vigorous level, you’ll only be able to say a few words before needing to catch your breath.
Get enough vitamin D.
Some people have called vitamin D the “wonder drug of the 21st century.” This is because studies have shown vitamin D to have a wide range of effects, from supporting the immune system to maximizing muscle function to having antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. In addition, vitamin D receptors have been found on most cells in the body, indicating that this vitamin is essential for proper cellular function.
Keep nasal passages moist.
Cold viruses tend to thrive when humidity is low, which is why they’re particularly prevalent during the fall and winter. The low humidity also dries out the mucus membranes of the nasal passages, making you more prone to infections. When the nasal passages are moist, the mucus traps and attacks invading germs, preventing them from reaching your lungs.
To prevent your nasal passages from drying up, you can get a whole-house humidifier or keep a portable cool-mist humidifier in your bedroom or next to your chair where you sit or nap. When using a humidifier, just be sure to carefully follow the instructions for operating and cleaning that come with it to ensure you don’t inadvertently unleash additional germs into the air.
Incorporate immunity-boosting superfoods in your diet.
Nutrients are essential for keeping your body functioning properly, including in the immunity department. Because superfoods are nutrient-dense, containing abundant vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, these are the foods that have the greatest protective benefits. Most vegetables and fruits are considered superfoods, as are foods that are high in certain nutrients, like selenium and omega-3 fatty acids. Examples of such foods include Brazil nuts, wild salmon, and wheat germ.
Avoid crowded places.
The more, the merrier . . . and the more germy, particularly if you’re in an enclosed environment where air circulation may not be optimal, such as a shopping mall, airplane, or restaurant. Although your body generally does a fantastic job of dealing with all the germs you may come in contact with on a daily basis, when your immune system is weakened, it’s easier for the germs assaulting your system to cause an infection.
And even if you take precautions, you ultimately can’t control the person who coughs or sneezes in your direction.
Keep your kitchen clean and your food safe.
According to the CDC, every year approximately 48 million Americans get sick from a foodborne illness, and approximately 3,000 people die from them. These illnesses occur through many means. You can’t control what happens to your food before it reaches you, but you can control how it’s handled and prepared in your kitchen.
Keep your kitchen countertops clean by regularly wiping them down, particularly after handling foods with safety hazards, like raw meat.
If you’re a smoker, one if the best things you can do for yourself after a cancer diagnosis is to quit smoking and encourage your family members to do the same. Smoking not only increases the risk of cancer recurrence, but also makes you more susceptible to catching colds and other viruses by further impairing your immune system, which is already compromised.