The spread of the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) may feel beyond your control, but there are several things you can do to help protect yourself during the outbreak.
The first (and most important) step is to make sure you practise good hygiene. Small actions like washing your hands regularly and thoroughly can help to reduce the spread of the disease, while minimising contact with others, a practice known as social distancing or self-isolation, can be beneficial in some cases.
The next action you can take to stay safe during the outbreak is to keep your immune system as strong as possible. As people with weakened immune systems are most at risk of falling seriously ill from COVID-19, a well-functioning immune system could be key in the fight against the virus (SARS-CoV-2).
So what can you do to strengthen your immune system? Follow these 3 tips.
Tip 1: Get plenty of sleep
Studies show that poor or disrupted sleep can weaken your immune system and make you more vulnerable to infection.
Good-quality sleep can boost your immune system by encouraging your body to make and release white blood cells - the cells that protect your body from infectious diseases - so it’s important to make sure you get around 7 to 9 hours of good-quality sleep each night.
If you find it difficult to get enough sleep, try sticking to a regular bedtime - a strict routine can help to regulate your body’s internal clock and promote good-quality sleep.
You may also find that you improve the quality of your sleep by:
- avoiding naps in the late afternoon or evening
- using low lighting in the evenings to help your body wind down
- not eating large meals close to bedtime
- making sure that your bed is comfortable
- sleeping in a cool, dark room
- cutting down on caffeinated drinks like coffee, energy drinks or cola
- not smoking
- drinking less alcohol
- exercising regularly (if you’re self-isolating and have no symptoms, here are some ideas for exercises you can do at home)
Tip 2: Eat a balanced diet
To make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need, you should eat a balanced diet that contains plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, protein, and wholegrain or wholemeal starchy foods.
There isn’t much evidence to support the idea that taking vitamin supplements will help your body to fight an infection, but getting enough protein, vitamin A and zinc from your diet can all help to keep your immune system healthy.
And there’s some evidence to suggest that small amounts of unsaturated fat can help to boost your immune system.
Tip 3: Avoid stress
With no vaccine to protect against the new coronavirus and no treatment to cure it, it’s normal to feel anxious. However, it’s important to try to minimise stress if possible.
When your body is stressed, it releases a hormone (corticosteroid) that can suppress your immune system and make it less effective. Stress can also interfere with your sleep and leave you feeling run down or tired.
If you feel stressed or anxious, try talking with a close friend or family member. Studies show that talking to someone you trust can help you to sort through your problems and gain a fresh perspective on the situation.
You can also try breathing exercises or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). If you’re self-isolating, you can do CBT at home.
For more help, read our article on how to deal with stress.
What can weaken the immune system?
Many things can weaken your immune system, including:
- medical treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy
- a chronic illness or medical condition
- older age
- HIV and AIDS
- some genetic disorders
- certain medications
When your immune system is not working as it should, your risk of catching an infection can rise. This doesn’t mean you should stop taking medication or receiving treatments that can weaken your immune system - you shouldn’t. In fact, doing so without speaking to your doctor may harm your health.
If you have a weakened immune system, you will need to be more vigilant during a disease outbreak. Call a doctor or healthcare provider for advice if you develop symptoms of coronavirus, no matter how mild they may seem.
If you think you may have coronavirus, you can use our COVID-19 Symptom Mapper to check your symptoms and compare them with others around the world.
This should give you a better understanding of how the illness is affecting you and will help us to map the spread of the outbreak.