We've all felt that impending sense of doom when we realize a cold is coming.
Maybe your nose is a little runny or your throat is tighter than normal — either way, you know a cold is coming and you can't seem to stop it.
The common cold is a viral infection of your nose and throat that can be caused by many different types of viruses. It's usually pretty harmless and goes away, but it definitely doesn't feel that way — symptoms include a runny nose, congestion, coughing, sneezing, and even a low-grade fever. Simply put, colds suck.
So what's actually the best thing to do when you already feel yourself getting sick with a cold?
Obviously, you want to do whatever you can to prevent the cold from getting any worse and help your body recover so you can get back to normal. But what actually helps? We reached out to Dr. Pritish K. Tosh, infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to find out.
1. The most important steps are to get plenty of rest and drink fluids. Here's why.
"Really the bulk, if not all of it, is just getting adequate rest and fluids," Tosh says. So rather than focusing on which hacks or cures will stop your cold in its tracks (because there aren't any magic healing charms, sorry) you should just focus on downtime and hydration. "If you aren’t getting enough rest or fluids, you won't feel better no matter how much orange juice or chicken soup you have," Tosh says.
Most colds will go away on their own, but you should see a doctor if your cold causes any of the following symptoms: a fever over 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit, a fever lasting more than five days, a severe sore throat, severe headache or sinus pain, and trouble breathing or wheezing.
2. You need to get enough sleep and rest so your body can recover from a cold.
So how much sleep do you need? "It depends on the individual — some people feel well rested after four or five hours of sleep, some people need nine or ten hours," Tosh says. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults aged 25–64 years will need about seven to nine hours of sleep. But you should get as much sleep as you need to feel well-rested, then some more rest on top of that.
You have to stay in your bed all day long, but just take it easy and don't go out and run a million errands or do activities that require a lot of energy. If you feel really sick or your job is very active, you might want to take a day or two off if it's possible, so you can get your rest.
3. So that means you probably shouldn't do strenuous exercise either.
"When you’re sick, you need to be resting. Now is not the time to decide to go on 5-mile run — you don't want to overexert yourself when you're recovering," Tosh says. But it also depends on how sick you feel and what kind of workout you want to do. If you feel well enough to do some light exercise like a walk or yoga, then it's probably fine. But if you feel really crummy, just stay in bed and rest.
Another reason to avoid the gym when you're sick is that you can wind up spreading your germs to everyone else at the gym too. "Exerting yourself strenuously when you’re sick will just delay your recovery and expose others to illness " Tosh says.
4. You should also drink fluids because your body needs more of them when you're sick.
"When you are sick, your body is revving up its metabolism in a way to fight off the illness, and it's actually using more water than it would if you weren’t sick," Tosh says. So it's very important to stay hydrated, especially if you've had a fever or been sweating and losing fluids.
How much do you need to drink to stay hydrated? "There isn't necessarily a hard number and it depends on the individual, but many people underestimate how much fluid you need," says Tosh. So you should drink until you're hydrated and probably then some, but you don’t have to overdo it. One way you can tell if you're hydrated is by looking at the color of your urine, Tosh says. "If it's darker than yellow, you probably aren't getting enough fluids in — the lighter, the better."
You can obviously stay hydrated by drinking water, but other fluids like clear soups, tea, and sports drinks are okay too. "The sports drinks can actually replenish some electrolytes and provide calories, which helps," Tosh says.
5. A healthy diet is important, but you should also stick to foods that are easy on your stomach.
When your body is fighting off a cold, you want to make sure you're supplying it with enough calories and energy. "It's important to have a nutritious, balanced diet while you're sick but you should also eat what you feel comfortable with — so foods that are easy to eat and won't upset your stomach," Tosh says. So now is probably not the time to try those insanely spicy noodles or steak tartare.
"You want to maintain those calories but in a palatable form, so something like chicken soup is great because it's soothing, hydrating, and gives some basic nutrition," Tosh says. Miso soup is another great option because it has some protein and good bacteria for your gut. Cooked vegetables, fresh fruits, and easy-to-digest carbs like rice and toast are also good options.
6. Cold medicine can help you feel better — but it shouldn't replace rest and fluids.
There are a bunch of different over-the-counter medications to help with cold symptoms. "When combined with good rest and fluid intake, over-the-counter medications can make you feel a lot better," Tosh says. So if you do take them, just make sure you aren't doing so at the expense of your rest and hydration. "Medications can help ease your symptoms — but you still need the rest and fluids to actually recover," Tosh says.
So basically, don't take a bunch of cold meds so you feel well enough to go to your friend's birthday party and stay out drinking all night. Just because medications make you feel better, that doesn't mean you actually are better.
P.S. Antibiotics are taken to treat bacterial infections, so they have no effect on cold viruses. Repeat after us: do not take antibiotics for a cold.
7. Vitamin C or other supplements won't magically cure you, but they probably won't hurt either.
You've probably been thinking this whole time — well what about Emergen-C? Airborne? Zinc? The truth is, the clinical research and evidence surrounding vitamin C and zinc is just too inconsistent and controversial, Tosh says. It's also pretty unlikely that you have true vitamin C deficiency (like scurvy). However, these vitamins and minerals probably won't do any harm — and if you think they help, then go for it! Just don't take them in lieu of rest and sleep, Tosh says.
8. Know the difference between a cold and the flu — and if you have the flu, you should really stay home or see a doctor.
Colds and the flu have similar symptoms, such as congestion, runny nose, and sneezing. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. In general, the flu hits you much faster than a cold and symptoms are far more severe. But the main difference is that the flu will cause a high fever, chills, and body aches all over — whereas a cold won't.
If you have the flu, definitely stay home so you can rest and avoid spreading it to others. If your symptoms don't improve or you experience an unusually high fever or have trouble breathing, go see a doctor. You should also see a doctor if you get the flu and you’re in a high-risk group — so if you’re pregnant, have a chronic condition, or a weakened immune system.
9. Finally, remember that the healthier you are before you get sick, the better you'll be able to fight it off.
You're probably reading this article because you already feel a cold coming. But once you’re better, taking better care of yourself can help you avoid getting sick again. The duration and severity of your illness will also depend on how healthy you were before you got sick. "The best way to keep yourself from having a complication or infection from a cold, the best way to return to health after a cold, is to be healthy in the first place," Tosh says.
In this case, being healthy means getting enough sleep every night, maintaining healthy eating habits, and getting moderate amounts of exercise. "Staying healthy is the best way to prevent getting sick," Tosh says. So remember — take care of yourself during cold and flu season and don’t hang out with sick people either!