We all have heard it: “don’t get wet in the rain or you will get a cold,” “don’t sleep with the window open or else you’ll get sick,” “going out with a wet head will cause you to get a cold.” Though colds are very common and everybody gets one from time to time, there are tons of myths, folktales, and misinformation surrounding them. But the truth is there is nothing mysterious about them; colds are viruses that spread from person to person and that tend to be more common during certain seasons.
Because winter is quickly approaching, and we all know that tingling sensation that we get at the back of our throats telling us that a cold is about to show up, it’s important to know that what we do from that moment on until the cold takes over can have a huge bearing on just how severe the cold symptoms are going to be.
We know that navigating a cold can be a little tricky, so we’ve gathered all the facts about what colds really are, how to treat them, and how to get rid of them. Read on to find out how you can prepare yourself for the cold season, so it won’t catch you by surprise.
Table Of Contents
- 1 What Is A Cold?
- 2 Getting Rid Of The Cold
- 3 How Are Colds Spread?
- 4 What To Avoid To Prevent A Cold From Getting Worse
- 5 Cold vs Flu – What Is The Difference?
- 6 How To Prevent Colds
- 7 Maintain A Healthy Lifestyle
- 8 Maintain A Healthy Environment Around You
- 9 Don’t Stress
- 10 Conclusion
What Is A Cold?
Colds are very common, so much so that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every adult has an average of between two and three colds every year, which is around 200 during his or her lifetime. Colds are common because they are actually viruses that spread very easily; you can catch a cold by being in close contact with a person that has one, or by touching a surface contaminated with the virus.
Though colds can make you feel very ill and weak, these viruses tend to be harmless and only last between 5-10 days. There are over 200 viruses that have been associated with the common cold; however, the most common are the rhinoviruses. Rhinoviruses are viruses associated with the nose and the upper respiratory tract, usually attaching themselves to the lining of your nose and throat.
Getting Rid Of The Cold
There are thousands of cold medicines, home remedies, and products claiming that they can cure a cold, but the unfortunate truth is that once you have a cold, there is nothing you can do about it except manage your symptoms and wait it out.
When a cold virus enters your body, your immune system quickly gets to work trying to fight off the infection, and because these viruses tend to be very mild, after a few days your body will get rid of the infection on its own.
But just because your body can get rid of a cold by itself, it doesn’t mean that you should spend a couple of weeks feeling miserable. There are hundreds of over the counter and home remedies that can help you feel better in no time, and learning what works and doesn’t work doesn’t have to be confusing.
Medications vs Home Remedies – Which Ones Are Better?
As there is not much you can do to cure or even stop a cold on its tracks, it doesn’t make a lot of difference if you choose an over the counter medicine or a home remedy (as long as they are safe) for alleviating your symptoms.
Home remedies are a great option if your cold is relatively mild and you want to avoid taking medications unnecessarily. Sometimes, home remedies can be safer than some over the counter cold medications, particularly if you are allergic to specific medications or if you have high blood pressure since some decongestants can increase your heart rate and blood pressure even more.
On the other hand, medications such as antihistamines, cough suppressants, expectorants, decongestants, and analgesics can provide some much-needed relief when your cold symptoms are severe or if you have a fever that won’t go down. We recommend that you consult with a pharmacist before buying a cold medication that you’ve never taken before to make sure it won’t interfere with any of your prescriptions.
These are some of our favorite at home remedies that have been proven to help relieve symptoms:
Steam therapy, also called steam inhalation, is one of the most common at-home practices for alleviating cold and sinus symptoms without the need for nasal sprays or decongestant medications. Steam therapy consists of opening the nasal passages by breathing in water vapor that is created either by a facial steaming machine, a hot kettle, or anything that produces hot or boiling water.
What we call steam therapy today is an ancient practice that dates back to ancient Greece and Rome where people used to get into public bathrooms filled with steam created by hot springs coming from underneath the floor.
The idea behind inhaling steam is that when you circulate warm, moist air through your breathing passages and lungs, the phlegm and mucus that makes it hard for you to breathe during a respiratory infection softens, relieving you from congestion and sinus pain.
Some folks like adding a few drops of essential oils to their steaming machines to amp up their benefits, and though there is no concrete scientific proof that essential oils can absolutely relieve your cold symptoms, some of them are extracted from plants that contain anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. Some of the most common essential oils recommended for cold and sinus problems are eucalyptus, peppermint, tea tree, and chamomile.
Your grandmother was right; according to the Mayo Clinic, saltwater gargles can help you soothe a sore throat and temporarily relieve that scratchy feeling you get on the back of your throat when you have a cold.
Because salt is a drying agent, when you mix warm water with salt, and use it as a gargle the salt particles draw moisture and liquid from your throat and the back of your mouth that accumulate during an infection. As an astringent, the salt can also break down mucus and get rid of irritants such as fungi and allergens that can form in your throat, making it sore and tender.
Saltwater gargles are also believed to wipe off harmful pathogen such as viruses that stick to your mouth and throat, protecting you from developing a more serious infection and even keeping future infectious agents at bay. However, be mindful that salt can be very drying, so using too much salt on your gargles can actually dry out your mouth and throat tissues, causing a whole set of different complications.
If you want to give saltwater gargles a try, we recommend filling an 8-ounce glass with warm, preferably filtered water and mixing in about a quarter to half a teaspoon of table salt until it dissolves. Gargle the solution one large gulp at a time (being careful not to swallow it) for 30 seconds then spit it out in the sink, until you have finished gargling the entire cup. Repeat every three to four hours until your throat feels better.
Though you should never swallow a saltwater gargle solution, you can add a drop or two of peppermint or eucalyptus oil to improve the taste and leave your throat with a fresh feeling after spitting the mixture out.
Neti pots and other forms or nasal irrigation are very controversial figures when it comes to cold and sinus relief. Some people swear by them, while others don’t want anything to do with them.
Nasal irrigation is the act of clearing your sinuses with a saline or saltwater solution with a neti pot, syringe, squeeze bottle or any other irrigation device. Out of all irrigation devices, the neti pot is the oldest and most common one, dating back hundreds of years and praised for its simplicity and effectiveness.
When you use a nasal irrigation device, you are pushing a saline solution through your nasal cavities onto your mouth, flushing out anything that’s clogging your sinuses and breathing passages, including mucus, debris, and allergens. Nasal irrigation can be very helpful when you have a cold because it can unclog your nostrils, allowing you to breathe free, relieve sinus headaches caused by an accumulation of mucus, and alleviate cold-related allergies.
Neti pots tend to be safe when used appropriately, but you should always remember to thoroughly sterilize anything you are going to use for nasal irrigation to avoid inserting any unwanted bacteria or pathogens back into your body. There are many recipes for creating your own saline solution at home, but you can also buy pre-made sterile and medical grade solutions at your local pharmacy.
Another home remedy that grandma got right; several studies have suggested that chicken soup can help alleviate your cold symptoms for a few reasons.
First, chicken contains cysteine, an amino acid that can help thin-out mucus in your lungs and airways, allowing you to expel the phlegm out more easily. Second, a nice bowl of chicken soup will not only keep you warm, but you will also be breathing in the steam it releases, providing your stuffy nose with some brief, but much-needed relief. And finally, soup will keep you full and hydrated, which your body needs in order to fight the infection better.
Aside from being delicious, honey is one of nature’s oldest and most special liquids. We know a lot about the properties of honey because it has been used for more than 5,000 years as a medicine mainly because of its antibacterial and antiseptic properties. Honey has also been linked to wound healing, and a particular kind of honey, called Manuka honey has also been shown to aid digestion and fight H. pylori, the bacteria that cause peptic ulcers.
The power of honey doesn’t lack when it comes to colds; the World Health Organization recommends using honey as an all-natural cough remedy because it has been shown to reduce a cough in people with upper respiratory infections even more effectively than some cough medications. To soothe a stubborn cough naturally, you can take one or two teaspoons of honey (any kind is fine as long as it is real honey) on its own or add it to a warm tea.
Drinking any kind of liquids will help prevent dehydration, which can happen during a cold because of mucus and fever. However, sipping on hot liquids, particularly tea can also soothe the inflamed tissues on your throat, providing some relief while keeping you hydrated and warm.
Some great teas for when you have a cold include ginger tea, which is believed to have antiviral and antimicrobial properties; lemon tea, which is high in vitamin C and can loosen mucus and phlegm; and garlic tea, which can help you feel better faster thanks to its antibiotic and antiviral properties.
Another home remedy that has been passed through generations, applying a small dab of warming mentholated salve under your nose or massaging it on your chest or back can work wonders opening up your airways and reducing congestion.
Menthol, eucalyptus, and camphor salves are also great for soothing the irritation that occurs right below your nose from continuously blowing it. Some studies have suggested that vapor rubs and salves can be effective for relieving nighttime coughs and cough-related chest pains.
Should I Take Antibiotics For A Cold?
The discovery of antibiotics as we know them today saved the lives of millions of people and they continue to save hundreds of thousands of lives today. There is no doubt that antibiotics were an incredible discovery and today continue to be a vital part of modern medicine. However, we’ve made the mistake of thinking that antibiotics are cure-all medications that can get rid of any illness they come across, but the reality is that antibiotics only get rid of bacteria.
The problem with taking an antibiotic when you don’t need one is that bacteria in and outside your body will eventually start making itself resistant to the medication. So if the time comes when you need to take an antibiotic, the bacteria might not respond to it because it mutated to become resistant. This means that common antibiotics may not work and your doctor might have to try several different treatments that tend to be stronger and potentially dangerous.
Some types of bacterial infections (such as some ear infections, pneumonia, bronchitis, and strep throat) and colds can share similar symptoms. However bacterial infections are often more severe and last longer. If you think you may have a bacterial infection, your doctor will be able to tell you what it is and prescribe the appropriate antibiotic to treat it.
How Are Colds Spread?
Colds can be very contagious because they are very easily spread through respiratory secretion from a person infected with the virus. When a person that has a cold coughs or sneezes, they spray thousands of microscopic droplets infected with the virus into the air and onto surfaces such as doorknobs, elevator buttons, pens, computer keyboards, etc. These tiny germ-riddled droplets can enter your body when you touch one of these surfaces and then touch your eyes, mouth or nose.
Between the third and the fifth day of a cold, which is when the virus typically peaks, you will start seeing your nasal discharges get darker and it is likely that you will develop a cough caused by the congestion and postnasal drip. After the fifth or sixth day, the symptoms begin to ease off and you may feel your nose starting to clear. Your ears will probably unclog, and your energy levels will start coming back up.
What To Avoid To Prevent A Cold From Getting Worse
The normal life cycle of a cold is between 5 to 10 days, but some colds seem to linger for much longer, sometimes lasting up to two weeks before all the symptoms to subside. While it is possible that what you thought was a cold was actually something else, sometimes the things that we do when we have a cold can make it go away faster or much slower. Here are some things you should avoid while you have a cold to keeping from lasting longer:
We all know that physical activity is great and we should try to get in at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every day. However, when you are sick with a cold, you should give working out a break for a few days – at least until your symptoms begin to clear up. This is particularly important if said symptoms are below the neck (like chest congestion or a cough), and especially if you have a fever.
Some over-the-counter cold medications can increase your heart rate. Working out also increases your heart rate, meaning that working out with a cold can make you become more out of breath and over-work your heart, which is potentially dangerous. Also, since your body needs rest to focus on fighting the virus, if you work out too hard with a cold, you won’t be allowing your body to battle the bug properly, meaning your cold lasts much longer.
Not Drinking Enough Fluids
Staying hydrated is another one of those important daily activities that we often take for granted. When you are sick with a cold, your body tends to lose more liquids than usual because of sweating from a mild fever, nasal drippings and mucus, or because you just don’t feel like eating or drinking anything because your throat hurts.
Though there is no scientific proof saying that staying hydrated will make you heal faster once you have a cold, it has been demonstrated that being dehydrated will actually make your recuperation much slower.
Not Getting Enough Rest
Usually, ignoring a cold will not make it go away faster. Even if you are not working out, when you are still running around doing errands all day and not letting your body’s defense mechanism do its job, it is likely that your cold will take longer to heal and your symptoms won’t go away as quickly.
Life’s crazy, and it is hard to put everything aside for a few days to get over a cold, but your body needs time to fight off the virus. Listen to your body and get some rest to get over that cold as fast as possible.
It May Be Something Else
If you are taking care of yourself, getting enough sleep and staying hydrated, yet a few weeks have gone by and your symptoms persist, it may actually be more than a cold. Colds are easily confused with other issues such as bronchitis, allergies, ear or sinus infections or the flu.
If your cold has lasted more than 10 days and your symptoms are still as strong as the first few days, you might want to schedule a visit with your doctor to figure out if there is something else going on. This is certainly the case if you have a cough that lasts more than three weeks.
Cold vs Flu – What Is The Difference?
We often hear the words “cold” and “flu” used interchangeably, and because the symptoms of colds and the flu can overlap it can be hard to tell them apart. Similarly to colds, what we commonly know as “the flu” is an infectious disease caused by the influenza virus. However, while several viruses can cause the common cold, only the influenza virus can cause the flu, but there are many different strains of influenza virus.
Both colds and the flu affect the upper respiratory tract of your body. However, flu symptoms are usually more intense than those of the common cold. Trying to tell the difference between a common cold and the flu based on symptoms can be very difficult because some people get more severe colds than others. However, there are a few symptoms you can look out for if you are trying to determine whether you have a cold or the flu.
A fever is an elevation of your body’s internal temperature. Typically, our bodies like to be around 98.⁰ F (37⁰ C), with a flexibility of about one degree above or below, for all organs to function properly and to regulate all bodily functions.
When you have the flu, one of the most common symptoms is a fever. Typically, fevers are your body’s defense mechanism when it is fighting an infection; when you become infected with a virus or bacteria, your body releases certain chemical compounds into your bloodstream to fight off the infection. One of the main functions of these chemicals is to raise your body’s temperature to kill any virus or bacteria that can’t survive at high temperatures. A person is considered to have a fever when his or her body temperature rises above 100.4⁰ F (38⁰ ).
Sneezing, Coughing, And A Runny Nose
These are all very common symptoms of both a cold and the flu. The common cold typically affects your nose and sinuses, making you feel stuffy and congested, but when you have the flu though you may experience a little congestion, you may not be constantly be discharging mucus from your nose as you would with a cold.
A mild cough, also caused by chest congestion, is a symptom of the common cold. Coughing with the flu is different because while you won’t experience as much phlegm and chest tightness as you would with a cold, the flu can evolve into more serious respiratory problems such as pneumonia and bronchitis.
When healthcare professionals talk about “above the neck” symptoms during a cold, they refer to sinus, ear, nose, and throat symptoms. Aside from mild body aches, when you have a cold the symptoms tend to stay above the neck. However, with the flu your symptoms can migrate below the head, causing you stomach issues such as nausea, vomiting, cramps, and diarrhea.
Though gastrointestinal problems during the flu are more typical in children than in adults, dehydration caused by vomiting or diarrhea can be a serious concern if not taken care of in time.
Sometimes, some of the most common flu symptoms are actually caused by our own bodies while trying to combat the infection. That is the case with muscle and joint pain when you are sick with the flu; when you have the influenza virus, your body works very hard trying to get rid of it, releasing a number of chemicals that help your white blood cells fight the virus.
Though these chemicals work very hard in clearing the infection, one of its side effects is muscle and joint pain. This pain, while uncomfortable is a good sign that your body is battling the virus and working hard to make you feel better.
When To See A Doctor
Now that you know how some cold and flu symptoms differ and what to look for, it is important to note that even though these respiratory infections are both caused by viruses, the flu is a more serious condition with potentially dangerous complications, while the common cold rarely develops into something more serious.
If you have the flu, it may be wise to visit your doctor if after a couple of weeks your symptoms remain as strong as they were the first few days. Coughing up blood, having trouble breathing, wheezing, chest pains, and a high fever that won’t go down are all signs that you may require immediate treatment. Children, pregnant women, and the elderly should always go to a doctor if they have the flu since they have a higher risk of developing flu-related complications.
How To Prevent Colds
Because colds are airborne viruses, you are exposed to them every day, so incorporating a few precautions on your daily routine can go a really long way. Here are some effective and easy to follow steps you can take to remain healthy even when everybody around you is coming down with a cold.
Wash Your Hands
Hand washing might seem like a no-brainer today, but before the 1800s people didn’t consider washing their hands to be a sanitary approach for preventing disease. It wasn’t until 1846 that a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis realized that hand washing drastically reduced the number of hospital-acquired infections.
After that, he recommended that all doctors and medical students disinfected their hands with a chlorine solution before establishing contact with a patient. Almost a hundred and fifty years later hand washing continues to be one of public health’s most effective preventive strategies for avoiding many infectious diseases.
Wash your hands as often as you can, especially if you were in contact with someone sick with a cold or if you were at a crowded place such as an airport or subway station. In order to eliminate viruses, wash your hands with soap and water and scrub your hands vigorously (including between your fingers and the back of your hands) for at least 20 seconds.
Maintain A Healthy Lifestyle
Have you ever wondered why some people never seem to catch a cold while others are always sick? In most cases, it has a lot to do with their lifestyle, including the foods they eat and their exercising habits. You already know that eating healthy and exercising often is very important for reducing your risk for developing chronic conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. But did you know healthy habits are also important for boosting your immune system and helping you ward off viruses during cold and flu season?
There are thousands of products out there that claim to be immune system “boosters” and that they can protect you from colds and other viruses. However, the truth is limited scientific evidence shows any of these products actually work.
When we talk about foods that boost your immune system, we refer to fruits and vegetables containing vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that can help your body prevent disease by helping to keep your immune system strong. Some phytonutrient-dense foods include green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach. Phytonutrients are great for keeping you healthy; however, unlike vitamins and minerals, they are not considered essential nutrients for keeping you alive.
Of all vitamins and minerals, vitamin C is most well known for supporting immunity and helping your fight against pathogens. Vitamin C is commonly found abundantly in citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, tangerines, etc. But what many people don’t know is that vegetables such as red bell peppers contain almost three times as much vitamin C than oranges, and other veggies such as broccoli and kale aren’t far behind.
Experts agree that eating foods that are high in vitamin C and other nutrients is more effective for supporting your immune system and generally maintaining a good health status than taking them in synthetic form like in vitamin supplements. Other foods that likely boost your immune system and help you prevent colds include mushrooms, sweet potatoes, yogurt, broccoli, and garlic.
Maintain A Healthy Environment Around You
Because the viruses that cause the common cold are very contagious, you should always be mindful of your surroundings both when you are healthy and when you are sick. If you are sick, doctors recommend that you stay home for at least a day (more if your symptoms are severe) to avoid getting other people sick. Touching surfaces after you’ve coughed or sneezed can easily spread your germs around, causing other people to catch the virus.
If you are not sick but someone else in your home is, try to sanitize contact surfaces around your house. Disinfecting a doorknob or a computer keyboard can pay off during the cold season. As germs can survive up to 24 hours on surfaces, disinfecting wipes usually are a good investment, especially if you work at a highly transited space like a classroom or an office.
Don’t Skimp On Sleep
Some people don’t know that poor sleeping habits or a repeated lack of sleep can affect their immune system and increase their chances of getting sick. Researchers have been studying the link between sleep cycles and the immune system for years, and their research suggests that there is a stronger and more complex relationship between immunity and rest than we might have thought.
The dynamics between sleep and immunity, particularly how cytokines and other chemicals regulate sleep and immunity, are not fully understood yet. However, researchers have observed that when people are sleep deprived, even during short periods of time, the production of cytokines and white blood cells decline, making you more likely to catch a virus when cold season comes around.
Because long-term sleep deprivation has also been linked with heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, it is important that you don’t underestimate the importance of getting a good night’s sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults between 26 and 64 years old get 7 to 9 hours of uninterrupted and good quality sleep every night to allow your body to perform all of its restorative processes.
Similarly to sleep deprivation, being under constant stress can trigger responses that can weaken your immune system. Specifically, when you are stressed out for prolonged periods of time, your body releases cortisol, commonly referred to as the “stress hormone.” Cortisol is one of the hormones that activate your “fight or flight” response, making you react faster and stay focused under pressure.
One of the side effects of cortisol is that it slows down or mutes other important functions in order to act fast during a particularly dangerous or stressful situation. In theory, once the situation has passed and you are out of danger, your cortisol levels should go back down and all your functions should go back to normal.
However, when you are chronically stressed your cortisol levels cannot calm down, and it can start to alter many important functions including your immunity. So while being stressed will not necessarily make you sick with a cold, chronic stress lowers your immunity, making you more likely to catch any viruses flying around.
We hope you enjoyed this guide for getting rid of a cold. This winter season, don’t let a cold catch you off guard! Prepare yourself by eating immune-boosting foods, keeping your airways moist with a facial steamer, and stock up with all the cold-fighting home remedies we shared with you so even if you do catch a cold it won’t get the best of you.
Let us know in the comments what’s your favorite home remedy for treating a cold, and what your secrets are for staying healthy during cold season!