It usually starts with a tickle in your throat and a slight feeling of being “unwell.” But within only a day or two, it becomes a full-blown invasion of your upper-respiratory tract, complete with a raging-fire sore throat, oozing, inflamed sinuses, and a nasty cough. If severe enough, it can even lead to a secondary infection of the sinuses or lungs (pneumonia), disrupting your life for weeks instead of just days.
This highly unpleasant “it” of which we speak is the rhinovirus, or the common cold, and unfortunately, there is no known cure for it. However, there are some things you can do to lessen a cold’s duration and severity, possibly even fighting it off entirely if you catch it in its very early stages. The next time you feel like you’re coming down with something, take up the following weapons to go to battle against the nasty opponent that is the common cold.
There is promising evidence to suggest that taking certain nutritional supplements in the early stages of a cold can help you fight it off, or at least reduce its severity. These supplements include zinc, vitamin C, and echinacea.
Zinc lozenges: A review of 15 different randomized controlled trials published in 2011 determined that zinc lozenges were effective in reducing cold severity and duration of colds when administered in the first 24 hours of the onset of symptoms. Zinc gluconate lozenges for reducing the length of the common cold can be purchased over-the-counter under various brand names, including “Cold-Eeze,” and should be taken about every two hours (or as instructed on the packaging). You can also purchase OTC nasal sprays containing zinc, but the National Institutes of Health warns against taking these products, as they have been associated with alarming side effects, including permanent loss of smell (yikes!)
Vitamin C: When taken in very high doses at the onset of cold symptoms, this essential antioxidant vitamin may also reduce the length of a cold. According to the NIH, the majority of evidence shows that taking 1 to 3 grams (1,000 to 3,000 mg) of vitamin C daily can reduce the length of a cold by 1 to 1.5 days. Taking “Emergen-C” or similar products is a good way to megadose on vitamin C at the start of a cold.
Echinacea: Some, though not all, studies show that taking the herbal supplement echinacea is effective at fighting off colds when taken in the early stages, according to the Mayo Clinic. Echinacea can be taken as a tea, tincture, herb juice or capsule. However, effectiveness may vary significantly from one echinacea product to the next, so try supplementing with vitamin C and zinc as well, rather than using echinacea alone. Make sure to take nutritional supplements as instructed and with your doctor’s consent.
As a child, did your mom or grandma ever try to cover you up with a blanket when you were sick, even though you felt hot? Well, she was probably on to something! Heat therapy is popular home remedy recommended by some health professionals to help fight off colds in the early stages. When you first come down with a cold virus, you typically run a fever. Generating heat is one of your body’s defenses against viruses: the heat confuses the virus and makes it more difficult for the bug to thrive and propagate. For this reason, many people recommend bolstering your body’s natural heat defense by staying warm at the start of a cold. Therefore, at the start of cold symptoms accompanied by a low-grade fever (temperatures between 99°F and 100.4°F), it is not recommended to take aspirin or a cold bath to “break” the fever. Instead, bundle up, drink warm drinks, and eat hot foods. If you’re feeling up to it, light exercise, such as a 30-minute walk, also helps keep your body temperature up, and has been shown to bolster immunity on a cellular level.
With all that said, you should not attempt to raise your body temperature in an extreme way, such as by spending time in a hot sauna or exercising vigorously. Becoming too hot will put excessive stress on your immune system, potentially causing you to get even sicker. Also, high fevers can be dangerous. Adults should call a doctor for very high fevers of 104°F lasting more than two hours or for high fevers of 102°F lasting for two full days. It is also important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids when you are running a fever.
Eat (and Drink) Up
The old adage, “Feed a cold, starve a fever” is at least half-true: you should be eating plenty of good foods when you have a cold virus (though the “starve a fever” part is no longer considered sound advice). By consuming a good amount of fluids, calories, macronutrients (such as protein), and micronutrients (such as vitamins and antioxidants), you supply your immune system with the defenses it needs to fight off the virus. Certain foods are especially good at helping you fight a cold:
Chicken soup: According to the Mayo Clinic, chicken soup may help you recover from a cold by inhibiting neutrophils, immune cells involved in the body’s inflammatory response to a virus, and by speeding up the movement of mucus through the body.
Protein-rich foods: Protein-rich foods such as meat, nuts, and beans help form the building blocks of hormones and immune cells needed to fight off viruses. Yogurt and mushrooms are two more protein-packed foods associated with boosting immunity.
Spicy foods: Spices are rich sources of antioxidants, which serve numerous important functions in the body. Spices like oregano, garlic, ginger, and cumin contain antioxidants associated with antiviral properties. Spicy foods also help speed the movement of mucus through the system and raise your body temperature to boost your natural “heat defense” discussed above.
Green tea: Green tea contains high levels of substances called tannins, including EGCG, which has been shown to prevent cold viruses from replicating in lab tests. The tannins in green tea may also help soothe sore throats. If you’re going to drink multiple cups, choose decaffeinated green tea, as too much caffeine can contribute to dehydration.
Fluids in general: Besides tea, you should also drink plenty of water and other fluids during a cold to keep your body properly hydrated and to help flush the virus out of your system. Other good drinks for a cold include warm lemon water, clear broth, and juice.
This one is pretty simple: the main thing your immune system needs to recover from a cold virus is rest. This means getting plenty of sleep and avoiding alcohol, stress, and strenuous physical activity.
No partying: It may be tempting to meet your friends at the bar or have some drinks at home to try to escape from your cold for a few hours, but this will only make you sicker when your buzz wears off. Alcohol has a short-term effect of compromising your immune function, while also causing dehydration. You also want to avoid late nights with a cold – according to the Loughborough University Sleep Research Center, the effectiveness of your immune system declines by 50 percent in response to a 40 percent or larger decrease in sleep (e.g., getting 4.5 hours of sleep instead of your usual 8).
No heavy training: Athletes may want to get out there and pound the pavement despite having a cold, but like drinking alcohol, engaging in strenuous exercise with a cold can make it last longer. According to the American Council on Exercise, the stress hormones the body produces during intense exercise (e.g., running, dancing, swimming) temporarily suppress immunity. However, as mentioned above, some light exercise, such as a 30-minute walk, can actually help you fight a cold. It is also important to note that people who regularly engage in moderate exercise have better resistance against colds.
Treat Your Symptoms
There are certain actions you can take, such as gargling with saltwater or taking a cough suppressant, that will help temporarily relieve your cold symptoms and make your cold more bearable, even if they don’t cause you to heal any quicker.
Saltwater gargle: This can make a sore throat feel better by soothing scratchiness and drawing out excess mucus. In warm water, dissolve ¼ to ½ teaspoon of salt and gargle for at least a few seconds before spitting it out. Do this at least three times daily.
Saline sprays: Saline nasal sprays are a drug-free way of relieving nasal congestion. You can buy them over the counter and they are safe to use, even for children and infants. Make sure you use them as instructed and avoid products with added ingredients – such as decongestants – to avoid a rebound effect in which symptoms return after the medication wears off.
Steam: A steamy shower or moist air from a humidifier can temporarily relieve upper respiratory congestion and especially a dry cough. However, if you use a humidifier, it is important that you clean it regularly to prevent the accumulation of dangerous mold.
OTC meds: There are numerous OTC medications you can take for a cold, including decongestants, antihistamines, cough suppressants or expectorants, pain relievers, and “all-in-one” products that claim to treat multiple symptoms. These medications may help temporarily diminish symptoms, but usually only to a mild degree. As noted above, beware that decongestants can have a rebound effect. Also be extra careful about OTC medications such as Nyquil that contain acetaminophen, as taking excessive doses can cause liver toxicity and death.
Prevent the next one
Fighting a cold is tough, but preventing one is relatively easy.
- Wash your hands regularly – 80 percent of diseases are transmitted by touch.
- Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, and nose.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Protect your immune system with good nutrition, adequate sleep, and regular exercise.
- Avoid excessive stress – running yourself ragged, for example, by working late every day and taking on more responsibilities than you can comfortably handle, suppresses your immune system and almost guarantees that you will get sick.