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How to Stop a Cold in Its Tracks: MDs Share Their Top Tips So You Can Feel Better Fast

Plus, the cough remedy one MD says works better than prescription medicines

Now that winter is in full swing, you’re probably taking extra steps to avoid infection. Hand washing, social distancing, and wearing a mask in crowded places reduce your exposure to germs, but what if you already feel the symptoms of a cold coming on? Is there any way to prevent it from getting worse or at least relieve the symptoms quickly? We asked doctors how to prevent a cold when you feel it coming. Read on to find out their best tricks.

What is a cold?

A cold is a viral upper respiratory infection that triggers symptoms like a runny nose, sore throat and cough. “Colds are highly contagious. The average adult gets 2 to 3 colds a year,” says Janet O’Mahony, MD, an internal medicine doctor at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “They’re caused by several different viruses, and that is why you can get it again and again. Colds aren’t caused by rainy weather, dressing a certain way or wet hair. You get a cold if you are exposed to someone else with a cold.”

Related: How Long Are You Contagious With Norovirus? What to Know About the Highly Contagious GI Bug

Is there any way to prevent a cold if I feel one coming on?

Science has yet to find a way to prevent colds, but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer. “Fortunately, your body can fight off a cold virus on its own,” Dr. O’Mahony says. “And cold remedies may make you feel better until the cold is over by treating some of the symptoms.”

If you develop cold symptoms, like a low-grade fever or body aches, you’ve likely been infected with a virus, says Sarah Lee, MD, an emergency medicine physician at the University of Maryland Medical Center Midtown Campus.

At that point, there’s no way to prevent the sickness from running its course, but you can be strategic about treatment. Dr. Lee’s recommendation: Visit your doctor or an urgent care center for a swab test. A swab test analyzes your saliva or mucus for specific contagions. It can determine if your symptoms are caused by a cold or something else, like COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) or influenza (the flu).

While you heal, continue practicing good hand hygiene, cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze and avoid situations that might expose you to others, especially if you’re immunocompromised.

Related: Doctors Share the Best Ways to Relieve Sinus Pressure in the Ears + What You Should *Never* Do

9 smart ways to speed healing if you have a cold

When it comes to colds, “there is no end-all-be-all ‘cure.’ Your immune system will fight the virus and ultimately the infection must run its course,” Dr. Lee says. “However, there are many things you can do to help strengthen your body to fight the infection.” Here are 9 smart ways to speed up healing:

1) Stay hydrated

How to prevent a cold when you feel it coming: Beautiful Young Adult Millennial Female using water in residential home
eyecrave productions/Getty

Remember when you were sick as a kid and Mom would say “Make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids”? She was onto something! That’s because “staying well hydrated helps your body have the extra energy boosts it needs to fight the infection,” says Dr. Lee. “When you have a viral infection, you may become dehydrated for a number of reasons — for example, decreased appetite or losing body fluids through chills or sweating.”

“Drinking plenty of fluids increases the body’s overall blood volume and circulation,” adds Raelene Brooks, PhD, RN, Dean of the College of Nursing at the University of Phoenix. “This increase in volume and blood flow carries more oxygen and nutrients to support our frontline immunity cells, helping them fight the good fight against the virus.”

Water is the obvious choice in terms of hydration, but Dr. Lee says you may also want to consider drinks with added electrolytes, like Vitamin Water, Gatorade, Powerade or Pedialyte. Electrolytes are essential minerals that contribute to various bodily functions. Replenishing them when you’re sick is especially important because they help your body maintain balance. (Click through to learn more about how to make electrolyte water.)

2) Keep stress in check

If stress becomes a regular problem, it can wear down your body’s natural defense against illness. Consider that chronic stress affects the body’s ability to regulate its immune response. And, if your immune system doesn’t respond properly to threats (like cold viruses, for example), you’re more likely to become infected.

While there’s no way to prevent stress altogether, you can better manage it through mindfulness practices, like meditation. Bonus: Researchers have found evidence that mindfulness meditation may help strengthen your immune system and boost overall health. (Click through to learn more about the benefits of Loving-Kindness Meditation).

3) Take over-the-counter medication

How to prevent a cold when you feel it coming: Female customer picking and looking at the medicine box from the shelf. Senior woman buying medicine at drugstore.
Luis Alvarez/Getty

When managing cold symptoms, time-tested treatments are often the way to go. Case in point: over-the-counter medications.

“Tylenol treats sore throat and headache,” Dr. O’Mahony says. “I recommend nonsedating antihistamines like Claritin for nasal congestion because it has fewer side effects than ‘cold and flu’ combinations. For cough, I recommend a medication like Mucinex.”

The above drugs are considered safe and have proven track records, but Dr. O’Mahony says it’s still important to do your research. She warns against using combination ‘cold and flu’ type products, in particular, because they contain decongestants and sedating histamines. As a result, they present more serious side effects, “like raising blood pressure or causing excessive sleepiness.”

Related: The Best Nasal Decongestant Spray To Use Now That The FDA Has Found Decongestant Pills Don’t Work Isn’t A Spray At All

4) Eat a balanced diet

When you’re under the weather, experts advise avoiding fast food and processed fare. “Junk food contains high sugar, fat and preservatives that can increase your body’s inflammatory response,” Dr. Brooks says. “This exacerbates symptoms like a stuffy nose and sore throat.”

A better bet? “Stick to whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, chicken, fish, potatoes, rice and beans,” Dr. Brooks explains. “These foods contain the macro and micronutrients your body needs to support the frontline cells that fight off invaders and protect your immune system.” Research backs this thinking up. Numerous studies have found that the foods we eat directly and indirectly impact our immune cells and their function.

5) Consider vaccinations

How to prevent a cold when you feel it coming: Close up of senior Asian woman getting Covid-19 vaccine in arm for Coronavirus immunization

The CDC encourages everyone to get an annual flu and COVID-19 vaccine, but did you know that staying current on your vaccines can help prevent colds too? It’s true! “Interestingly, people who get the flu shot get fewer colds,” says Dr. O’Mahony. The reason? “These are likely milder viruses, like influenza B, which are included in the quadrivalent shots we get for flu each year.”

And if you’re 60 or older, consider getting the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) vaccine. “This is a respiratory virus that causes cold symptoms in most adults, but can lead to complications like pneumonia, especially in people with lung disease,” she explains.

Vaccines are especially important “if you are at risk for a more serious disease such as having medical problems like diabetes, heart disease, or immune problems” says Jesse Bracamonte, DO, a family medicine doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

6) Get more vitamin C

Vitamin C is found in many fruits and vegetables, including oranges, tomatoes and potatoes. This nutrient supports your muscles and bones, promotes wound healing and may even reduce the severity of the common cold.

One study published in the journal BMC Public Health found that participants with colds who took vitamin C experienced a significant decrease in the severity of their symptoms. Similarly, a review of vitamin C literature conducted by the Cochrane Library concluded that vitamin C supplementation reduced the duration of colds.

Most of us get the recommended daily amount of vitamin C from food, but supplementation may be worth considering. “Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps neutralize free radicals in the body, so making sure you get enough helps support a healthy immune system,” Dr. Brooks says.

One to try: Nature Made, Vitamin C, 1,000 mg (Buy on Amazon, $9.02). “Nature Made is an excellent brand with trusted potency,” Dr. Brooks explains.

7) Catch some Zzzs

Researchers have found that people who don’t get at least seven hours of sleep a night are more susceptible to the cold than those who get eight hours of sleep or more. Likewise, people who don’t get enough sleep before rhinovirus exposure (a common type of cold virus) are more likely to get sick and develop symptoms.

Establishing a nightly sleep routine can help you wind down and ensure you get enough rest to support your immune system.

Related: This ‘Music’ Switches Your Brain Into Deep Sleep Mode Automatically, Say Sleep Docs

8) Add honey to your favorite hot drink

How to prevent a cold when you feel it coming: Young woman sits at a table and adds honey into tea.

Up to 50% of people who come down with a cold report a sore or tickly throat as their first symptom. Staying hydrated and taking over-the-counter medication can relieve throat discomfort, but honey can take those efforts to the next level. That’s because honey has antimicrobial properties. In other words, it defends against harmful pathogens, like viruses and bacteria.

Related: The Right Throat Lozenge Can Help End Chronic Cough, Dry Mouth & More — Top Doc Advises How To Choose

Dr. Brookes says honey is regularly used as an anti-inflammatory in Eastern Medicine. It’s cheaper than most over-the-counter medications and can easily be added to hot drinks like coffee and tea. Honey’s healing power for colds extends beyond sore throats. “Honey is a great cough remedy,” says Dr. Lee. “In my experience, patients find it even more effective than certain prescription cough medications.” For the best results, start small. Add 1 teaspoon of honey to a warm drink of your choice. Stir until the honey dissolves and drink.

9) Keep a humidifier running

Respiratory viruses, like those that cause colds, remain infectious for twice as long in dry environments. Consider running a humidifier to prevent infecting others in your household. Research shows that keeping indoor humidity above 40% reduces the infectivity of virus particles.

A humidifier offers other benefits, too. For example, Dr. Lee says using a humidifier can help with congestion and stuffy nose by breaking up mucus. However, if you use a humidifier, “be sure the water, tank, and filter are clean,” she says. “Dirty humidifiers can release bacteria or fungi into the air.” (Click through for more benefits of humidifiers).

For more stay-healthy advice, keep reading

Ginger Shots Are One of Nature’s Best Immune-Boosting Tonics, Say Experts — Don’t Brave Sick Season Without Them

Top MD: This Salt Water Gargle Can Help You Avoid Getting Sick This Winter — And It’s So Easy + Cheap

How To Know If Expired Hand Sanitizer Is Still Good + What *Never* To Do With It

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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