How to Keep a Cold at Bay

Three Parts:Taking Care of Your Immune SystemTaking Care of Your ThroatClearing Your Sinuses

The best way to avoid the worst cold symptoms is to not catch a cold in the first place. Since you can't always avoid a cold, you need to act quickly as soon as you detect the first symptoms. The most important steps to keep a cold at bay are to get plenty of rest, stay hydrated, and relax. Most colds are uncomfortable but not dangerous to your overall health.[1] In most cases, colds will clear up on their own in 1-2 weeks.[2]

Part 1
Taking Care of Your Immune System

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    Know the symptoms of a cold. Colds can cause annoying symptoms such as sore throat, mild fatigue, and stuffy nose. Colds are unlikely to lead to severe symptoms such as high fever or crippling headache.[3] Usually people experience cold symptoms 2-3 days after infection: this means that by the time your throat is sore, you already have a cold. However, it is possible to shorten the duration and minimize the symptoms of a cold by knowing immediately when you are symptomatic. Common symptoms of the cold include:
    • Cough
    • Stuffy nose
    • Runny nose
    • Sore throat
    • Minor headache
    • Minor body aches
    • Low-grade fever
    • Sneezing
    • Watery eyes
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    See a doctor immediately about severe symptoms. In most cases, colds clear up on their own or with the help of home remedies. However, sometimes colds can lead to more severe infections that require medical treatment. This is more likely to occur in children than in adults.[4] Be sure to take yourself or your child to the doctor if you notice:
    • High or persistent fever
    • Dehydration or inability to drink liquids
    • Severe headache
    • Stiff neck (could indicate meningitis)
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Earache or ringing in the ears
    • Vomiting
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    Act quickly. As soon as you feel initial cold symptoms come on, take steps to keep the cold from worsening. Otherwise, you might be stuck with cold symptoms for a week.[5] Treat pre-cold symptoms such as sore throat, tiredness, or runny nose as a sign that you need to begin taking care of yourself.
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    Stay hydrated. Staying hydrated is one of the keys to minimizing the effects of a cold.[6] Drink eight to ten glasses of hydrating liquid each day.[7] Hydration strengthens the immune system and also minimizes the symptoms of nasal stuffiness and sore throat. If you keep hydrated, your mucus will be thinner and easier to flush out of your system.[8]
    • Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Stick to water and herbal tea if at all possible. Alcohol and caffeine will make it more difficult to stay hydrated.[9]
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    Get at least eight hours of sleep. Most adults get one to two colds each year. However, you are much more likely to catch a cold — and to have a cold that lasts — if you get less than eight hours of sleep per night.[10] If you feel a cold coming on, be sure that you give yourself extra time to sleep so that you can keep your immune system healthy.[11] If you can manage 12 hours of rest during the pre-cold period, that is even better.[12]
    • Many over-the-counter cold medications are not recommended if you want to prevent a cold from worsening. However, if your cold symptoms are keeping you awake at night, you might want to take medication so that your sleep is undisturbed. For example, if you have a persistent cough that prevents you from getting your needed rest, consider taking a cough syrup with benadryl to make sure you sleep through the night.
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    Stay relaxed. Stress can weaken the immune system and make it more difficult to combat a cold.[13] If you are in the pre-cold stages, take active steps to minimize the stress in your life. These might include:
    • Practicing mindfulness
    • Meditating
    • Taking deep breaths
    • Writing your stressful thoughts down in a journal
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    Eat a healthy diet. Colds can often reduce a patient's appetite. However, it is necessary to eat a balanced diet in order to keep the immune system strong and healthy.[14] Stick to whole grain foods that are rich in fiber as well as antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits in order to combat colds more quickly.[15] Some excellent foods to eat include:[16]
    • Blueberries
    • Dark, leafy greens
    • Red bell peppers
    • Squash
    • Yogurt
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    Eat chicken noodle soup. Not only is chicken noodle soup excellent comfort food, but it has also been shown to help fight colds. Soups are also a terrific way to keep hydrated. Moreover, chicken noodle soup can both soothe a sore throat and reduce congestion.[17] Find a recipe that is rich in vegetables and low in salt in order to keep yourself well balanced.
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    Don't be overactive. Exercise can help prevent colds, but it might make you worse once you've been infected with the common cold virus.[18] Stay away from exercise and too much activity if at all possible.[19] Give yourself a few days to rest from your training program, and let your body work on fighting the cold instead of improving muscle tone.
    • If possible you should also stay home from work or school. This will allow your body to rest as well as prevent the risk of infecting your colleagues.[20]
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    Consider zinc lozenges. Studies are not conclusive, but zinc lozenges may be able to reduce the severity of the common cold. They might also shorten the duration of a cold by a day or so.[21] Be sure that you follow all instructions on the package so that you do not experience any adverse effects from the zinc lozenges.
    • Be aware that zinc lozenges may cause side effects such as a bad taste in the mouth. Do not use zinc nasal sprays since they might affect your ability to smell.[22]
    • Avoid zinc pills. Too much zinc can upset your stomach, and taking a zinc pills is an easy way to overdo it. The usual oral intake of zinc is 4 mg/day.
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    Take echinacea. Echinacea is a controversial herbal remedy that may or may not help you fight off a cold. Some studies show that echinacea can reduce the duration of a cold by half a day or so.[23] Echinacea is likely more effective at reducing the severity of cold symptoms than it is at preventing a cold in the first place.[24]
    • Be sure that you consult a physician before taking echinacea, especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have chronic problems with your immune system, or are taking other medications.[25]
    • The recommended dose varies by manufacturer, but you should take about 300 – 400 mg of dry extract three times daily.
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    Stay warm. Keeping your body warm can help encourage your immune system to fight infection. Keep warm compresses handy, take a warm shower, wear warm clothing, and use a blanket to keep yourself nice and toasty.[26]
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    Take Vitamin C. The positive effects of Vitamin C can sometimes be exaggerated. There is evidence, however, that Vitamin C can reduce the length of a cold by 8% once symptoms begin.[27] Vitamin C might be especially effective for high-risk groups, such as schoolchildren in the winter months.[28] It is important, however, that you do not overdose yourself with Vitamin C, and always speak to a doctor before taking any supplements or over-the-counter medications.
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    Take probiotics. Probiotics are microorganisms that improve gut health and that might have a healthy effect on the immune system.[29] Probiotic supplements can be found in most health food stores. They might be able to reduce the length of a cold by 2 days.[30]
    • While it is unclear the extent to which probiotics might prevent colds, there are very few adverse effects from taking probiotics.[31]

Part 2
Taking Care of Your Throat

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    Put honey in your tea. Honey can help suppress coughs naturally, and it also has antibiotic properties. Putting one to two teaspoons of honey in your tea can help a sore throat from worsening. It can also ease the pain of a sore throat and make it easier for you to stay hydrated.[32]
    • If you hate tea or other hot beverages, try taking a spoonful of honey. Honey by itself has properties that help prevent coughing.[33]
    • Do not give honey to infants, and consult your physician if you are pregnant or breastfeeding about whether honey is safe for you to consume.[34]
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    Gargle with salt water. A salt water rinse not only reduces throat inflammation but might also be able to get nasty viruses out of your system.[35] There are also no adverse effects from a salt water rinse. Simply mix 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water. Take a sip of the salt water, gargle for 15 seconds or so, then spit. Repeat as necessary in order to get the full benefits of the salt water rinse.[36]
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    Drink hot beverages. Hot and warm beverages can help thin the mucus in your throat, which will allow you to flush toxins more easily. They can also be incredibly soothing to a sore or scratchy throat. Moreover, hot beverages might be easier to drink than cold beverages during your pre-cold period, which will encourage you to stay healthy and hydrated.[37] For maximum benefit, the hot beverages should be hydrating and should not have caffeine or alcohol. Try drinking:
    • Herbal teas
    • Hot water with lemon and/or honey
    • Clear broths
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    Stay away from smoke. Cigarette smoke can exacerbate a sore throat as well as weaken the immune system. Smoking can also dry out the throat, which makes it harder for the mucus membranes in your throat to fight infection. Stay away from cigarettes and secondhand smoke if you feel a cold coming on.[38]

Part 3
Clearing Your Sinuses

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    Recognize that flushing out toxins is a good thing. Nobody likes having a runny nose. However, flushing out mucus and phlegm is an important way for your body to get rid of toxins or harmful infections. Resist the urge to keep yourself blocked up. Instead, assist your body in expelling as much mucus, snot, and phlegm as possible. You will recover more quickly.
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    Avoid over-the-counter decongestants if possible. Decongestants might help temporarily clear your nose and head. However, these medications might also cause "rebound effects" that actually prolong the symptoms of a cold.[39] You should only resort to these medications if they are absolutely necessary to your comfort, your ability to breathe, or your ability to sleep. Otherwise, you are better off using other methods of keeping your passages clear.[40]
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    Take a hot shower. The steam can loosen the mucus in your nose.[41] Breathe in deeply during a long, hot shower. Be sure to keep the bathroom doors and windows closed, and do not turn on a fan during the shower. You want to keep the room as warm and steamy as possible.
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    Eat something spicy. Spicy foods can encourage your nose to run, which can help your body rid itself of virus-filled snot and mucus.[42] Some studies have also shown the immune-boosting effects of spices such as turmeric and fenugreek, which are often found in spicy foods such as curries.[43]
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    Use saline nasal spray. Saline nasal sprays can be found at most drugstores and grocery stores. By inserting a nozzle into your nostril and squeezing the bulb, the saline solution reaches deep inside your nasal cavity, breaking up blockages. This will allow your passages to clear and will help your body expel any irritants that might be worsening your cold symptoms.[44]
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    Use a vaporizer. Keeping your mucus membranes moist is essential to preventing infection and to staying comfortable while dealing with a respiratory illness. A vaporizer helps keep the air in your room from drying out, especially during winter months when your heater is on. Use a vaporizer when you feel symptoms coming on, and use the vaporizer every night while sleeping. Follow all instructions for using a vaporizer properly to ensure that molds and bacteria do not enter the vaporizer.[45]
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    Blow your nose often. Keep facial tissues handy, and blow your nose often when you feel cold symptoms begin.[46] Don't blow too hard to prevent the possibility of ear infection. If you are finding it difficult to blow your nose, use a nasal spray solution to break up any blockages in your nasal passages.
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    Sleep with an extra pillow. Your body will more effectively drain its passages when you remain upright. It is especially difficult for your body to rid itself of mucus while you are lying down to sleep. Use an extra pillow or two to keep your head and neck propped up in bed to promote the healing process.[47]
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    Use a vapor rub on your chest and back. A vapor rub can help those with colds or those who feel a cold coming on to continue breathing properly. Rub a small amount of the vapor rub on your chest and back. This is especially helpful to do before bedtime to make sure your body gets the rest it needs to fight infection. Do not use a vapor rub on your nostrils. [48]


  • The best way to keep yourself healthy is not to get sick in the first place. Some keys to preventing the onset of a cold include: washing your hands often; disinfecting communal items such as counters, dishes, and doorknobs; staying away from those with colds; getting plenty of rest during the cold season; and coughing and sneezing into your elbow or a disposable tissue.
  • The most important things to do when you feel a cold coming on are to stay hydrated, get lots of rest, and minimize stress in your life. This is why it is a good idea to take a sick day when you feel a cold coming on: that can help reduce the severity of your cold by quite a bit.
  • Stay positive: most colds are relatively minor and will be completely gone in 1-2 weeks on their own.


  • There are many over-the-counter medications that help relieve cold symptoms. These medications do not shorten the duration of a cold, and sometimes they might even prolong your cold by preventing your body from expelling mucus and other contaminants. Only use these medications when they are absolutely necessary. For example, if you require them to sleep, it is a good idea to use them.
  • Consult your physician before making any major changes to your diet and before you begin taking any supplements. Even herbal or natural remedies can cause side effects, allergic reactions, or react negatively to other medications. Follow your doctor's instructions at all times.
  • Honey is an excellent treatment for many cold symptoms. However, honey is not safe for everyone, especially small children and infants. Talk to your doctor about whether it is safe for you or your child to have honey.

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Categories: Colds and Viruses