4 habits that increase your risk of catching the flu

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By Lisa Flam

Winter is coming, and along with it, the illness everyone dreads: influenza.

Whether you received a flu shot or not, it’s important to do what you can to try to prevent catching the nasty virus that could keep you shivering under the covers for a stretch.

Dr. Roshini Raj, a TODAY contributor and gastroenterologist at New York University Medical Center, stopped by TODAY Wednesday to discuss things people do that may unwittingly put them at risk for picking up a flu virus.

“This is the season. It’s upon us,” she told TODAY’s Natalie Morale and Al Roker. “Even if you’re thinking you’re doing everything right, you may not be. There are certain habits we’re doing that might not be so great.”

One thing to avoid is only relying on the ubiquitous antibacterial hand gels, which Raj said don’t kill some viruses.

“It’s not a substitute for hand washing,” she said. “Good old-fashioned soap and water really can kill the bacteria and viruses or at least remove them from your hands more effectively.”

If you can’t get to a sink to wash up, make sure the antibacterial gel is made from at least 60 percent alcohol, ethanol or isopropanol, Raj said, and use it effectively by rubbing it vigorously and waiting for it to dry.

“Sixty percent is the magic number,” Raj said. “Even higher is better.”

Even when soap and water are available, many people aren’t washing correctly.

“Studies have shown many people don’t wash their hands after they cough or sneeze, or prepare food, go to the bathroom,” Raj said. “But even if they are washing, many people are not washing long enough. Twenty seconds is a good rule of thumb.”

Working out is a good thing, but spending too much time at the gym, especially if you’re not used to it, could put you at risk because of the added physical stress.

“Regular exercise is actually great for your body, good for your immune system,” Raj said. “But if you’re overdoing it, over-exerting yourself, you’re not hydrating properly, you could actually depress your immune system and be more prone to getting an infection.”

If you’re a regular exerciser, keep it up, Raj said. But if you’re just starting out, she recommended a “reasonable” exercise schedule of 30 minutes, five to seven days a week.

“You don’t want to go crazy,” she said.

Get lots of rest and sleep to help the immune system and slow the workouts down if you feel weakness, dizziness, joint pain or muscle ache, she said.

And finally, smoking can make you more susceptible to illness because of the harmful effects it has on the cilia, hair-like projections in the nose and lungs that help sweep out germs.

“Smoking actually decreases the activity of the cilia,” Raj said. “They become weaker, they’re not able to do their job. One more reason to quit.”

Roker raised the age-old issue that many people have heard from a loved one or perhaps repeated to their children: Going from a warm home out into the cold will make them sick.

“Not true,” Raj said. “The reason why we get a lot more colds and flus in the winter when it’s cold is because we are indoors a lot spending a lot more time with our dearest.”

The flu can cause symptoms including fever or chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, fatigue and body ache. It usually lasts for a few days to less than two weeks but can cause complications like pneumonia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over a three-decade period ending last flu season, the flu has most often peaked in February, followed by December, January and March, the CDC says.