There is no cure for the common cold, but the story doesn’t end there. We’ve all got friends/relative/coworkers with their own brand of snake oil—a trademark blend of chicken soup, VapoRub, and Tabasco sauce—that promises to stop a cold and end all our woes. Is relying on these remedies like fighting a forest fire with a garden hose, or will they really help us get back on our feet within a few days?
Anatomy of a Cold
The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory system and is caused by one of three types of viruses: rhinoviruses, picornaviruses, and coronavirues. Though highly contagious, colds are rarely serious or fatal for people with normal immune systems. But because they are caused by viruses, there is no cure. This is important to remember, particularly for people who take antibiotics for colds. Not only are antibiotics ineffectual in curing colds, but they also increase users’ likelihood of developing a resistance to antibiotics.
Pick Your Battles
So, the simple answer is no—you can’t get rid of a cold once you’ve contracted it, because you can’t cure a virus. But you can treat your symptoms effectively and strengthen your immune system to reduce the cold’s severity and speed up your recovery.
The most effective treatment for colds is to handle symptoms one by one. Sore throats, coughs, runny noses, headaches, sneezing, achiness, and fatigue all require individual attention. Fever more often accompanies influenza, but it can occur with colds, too. Addressing these symptoms as soon as they arise will help you keep them under control and prevent your illness from completely disrupting your life.
- To treat a sore throat, drink plenty of soothing hot fluids in combination with syrups to coat the irritated area. Throat lozenges usually help only while you are sucking on them; once they dissolve, you actually feel worse than before, since they break up the mucus that naturally coats and protects your throat. Choose tea or hot lemonade with plenty of thick honey instead. And resist the temptation to spike it, even though hot toddies are a traditional cold remedy—alcohol will also wear away that protective mucous membrane.
- To treat congestion, steam yourself like a bowl of broccoli. Mucus is important to protect your body’s membranes, as it contains antiseptic enzymes and immunoglobulins that help you fight off infection, which is why your body produces much more of the stuff when you’re sick. But when mucus starts building up in your sinuses, it blocks those important infection-fighting agents from getting where they need to be. Not to mention the fact that mucus turns you into a phlegmy version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. You need to get things moving, and the best way to do that is with heat. Take a super-hot shower and let the steam run up your nose, shvitz in a sauna, or sit over a pot of hot water with a towel covering your head (a low-budget vaporizer). Aromatherapy preparations of menthol and eucalyptus, like Vicks VapoRub, are also helpful de-gunkers.
- To treat a cough, try an over-the-counter expectorant, not a cough suppressant. The former helps you clear up mucus, whereas the latter simply reduces your urge to cough. Remember, when it comes to mucus, you want to unclog. That wet cough might not be pleasant, but it will help you get better faster. Just make sure to cover your mouth every time to avoid sharing your cold.
- To treat a fever, a headache, and body aches, pop some aspirin or acetaminophen. All these symptoms are the result of your body’s fighting infection. If you feel overheated and sore, like you’ve run a marathon, it’s because you have—at least in terms of the sheer physical effort ousting those germy invaders requires.
For all your symptoms, especially the general fatigue that plagues every cold sufferer, the prescription is plenty of fluids and rest. Think of fighting off infection as vigorous exercise, in the sense that your body is doing a lot of work to get you back to normal. That means you need to hydrate and replenish your energy stores just as you would with any other physical activity. Rest is important for cell repair, and water is key for maintaining stamina and keeping the bad stuff flowing out of you.
Prevention Is the Best Cure
The best way not to have a cold is not to get one. That means practicing good hygiene to keep germs at bay and maintaining a healthy immune system to prevent infections from breaching your body’s natural defenses.
Wash your hands after using the bathroom, sneezing or coughing, and shaking hands. Do the same before eating and touching your mouth, eyes, nose, and face, even if your hands don’t appear dirty. Cold viruses can live for up to three hours outside the body, so you come into contact with them on everything you touch. Remember that antibacterial soaps offer no defense against viruses; the physical act of hand washing is what actually removes infectious particles from your skin.
Though the “cold” got its name from the belief that it is caused by chilly, damp weather, this is not precisely so. Winter is known as “cold season,” but the frequency of colds during those months is more likely because of behavioral changes, like staying indoors in close proximity to others and breathing recycled air from heating ducts. Colds are actually becoming more and more common in the summertime among people who spend a lot of time in air-conditioning, reaffirming the hypothesis that enclosed spaces increase opportunities to contract a respiratory infection. Therefore, a good way to prevent getting sick is to spend as much time in the fresh air as possible, even in frosty winter temperatures. A little cold outdoors in winter will keep you from getting one inside your body.
Most important is cultivating a strong immune system all year by eating foods rich in vitamins A, B12, C, D, and E and trace minerals iron, zinc, manganese, chromium, copper, and selenium. For most of us, this means taking a daily multivitamin. Many people load up on these nutrients when they feel themselves getting sick, but by then it’s really too late; it’s much easier for your body to ward off an illness than it is to fight one. Herbs like echinacea are highly touted among cold warriors, but studies have shown that they have no effect. Maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, and reducing stress are better bets for sustaining overall health and immunity.
Cold Season? Chill Out
It seems like people worry so much about getting sick that they actually make themselves ill. But there’s no cause for panic. Sure, those beginning sniffles are unpleasant, but they don’t have to be harbingers of misery. Most colds resolve within a week, and by effectively treating your symptoms, you may not even have to miss work. Also, good preventive habits mean you don’t have to come down with a bug just because it’s making the office rounds. With this cold-fighting plan, you can save your sick days for playing hooky.