You Can’t ‘Stop’ a Cold. Here’s What You Can Do.
We all know that dreaded feeling that a cold is coming on. Your throat gets a little scratchy. Your joints ache a bit. Your nose is stuffed.
There’s no way to “stop” the common cold. It’s a viral infection, and the only cure is time. However, there are things you can do immediately to try to minimize your symptoms.
It’s important to distinguish between what’s effective and what might work, from the things that are flat-out myths. So, we’ve put together this post to sort everything out.
What is the common cold?
Colds are caused by a variety of viruses such as rhinoviruses. They differ from other respiratory viruses like the flu and COVID-19 in that colds usually cause milder symptoms and resolve on their own within a week or less.
That said, they share many of the same symptoms of the flu and COVID, or even seasonal allergies. The Mayo Clinic has a helpful guide to distinguish between the four if you’re unsure. Alternately, HealthTap users can search their symptoms on HealthTap AI or Dr. Q&A, and subscribers can connect with a doctor 24/7 in usually less than a minute.
Cold treatments that work
You’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: getting enough sleep is important to prevent and fight off illness.
Your T-cells — disease-fighting cells — decrease when you lose sleep. Getting the right amount of rest strengthens your body so it is the most equipped at fighting infection.
Aim for 8 hours each night. Maybe more if you’re already sick.
It’s easy to become dehydrated when you’re sick. So make sure you’re getting plenty of water. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy — plain old tap water will do.
Staying hydrated will also help break up mucus, which as we all know can be one of the main (and most annoying) symptoms during a cold.
And remember: it’s just as important to not-dehydrate. Stay away from alcohol and caffeinated beverages, which are diuretics and will make you more dehydrated. (Watch out especially for caffeinated teas. If your tea isn’t labeled with the phrase “caffeine-free,” it probably has caffeine in it.)
Use salt water
Salt water, in a couple of different forms, can help ease stuffy noses and sore throats:
- Nasal saline solution: Saline solution keeps the membranes of your nasal passage moist, which makes it harder for germs to take hold. It also helps clear out excess mucus, which can prevent you from becoming more congested.
- Salt-water gargle: Warm salt water helps to soothe a sore throat. It helps draw excess fluid from the inflamed tissue, which can result in less pain and inflammation.
Use pain relievers if necessary
If your symptoms are really getting to you, you can try over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication like acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol), ibuprofen (e.g. Advil) or aspirin.
IMPORTANT: children younger than 6 months should only have acetaminophen; be sure to check with your doctor for the correct dosage.
For kids older than 6 months, stick to acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Aspirin can be dangerous in certain circumstances.
Cold treatments that might work
You’ve probably heard this-or-that supplement can “cure” or “stop” a cold. Again: once you have a cold, nothing but your own immune system and time will make it go away.
But can supplements help speed things along? The answer is...maybe.
The research on most of these is mixed, so proceed with that knowledge and use caution — supplements can have other, unwanted side effects you might not know about.
- Echinacea: According to the National Institutes of Health, “[studies] investigating Echinacea for preventing colds did not show statistically significant reductions in illness occurrence. However, nearly all [studies] pointed in the direction of small preventive effects.”
- Elderberry: The jury’s still out on this one. Two studies suggested Elderberry reduced the duration of cold and flu symptoms, but a more recent study said that’s not the case.
- Vitamin C: A 2013 study showed that Vitamin C reduced the chances of getting a cold by half — for Army troops and highly active athletes. But for most people, it had no effect.
- Zinc: The study that suggested zinc as a potential cold treatment came out in 1984. A lot has happened since then, but nothing has shown it to be an effective treatment. There’s also reason for caution — zinc is toxic in high doses, so talk to your doctor before you try it.
Cold treatments that don’t work
Colds are, by definition, viral infections. Antibiotics treat bacterial infections and will have no effect on colds.
Well, at least it can’t hurt, right?
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics have given rise to a phenomenon called antibiotic resistance. Essentially, medications that used to treat certain bacteria are less effective now or don’t work at all. The Mayo Clinic has called this “one of the world’s most pressing health problems.”
So, think twice before you use an old prescription to try to treat the common cold. (And always dispose of your old medications properly.)
If you get sick, HealthTap is here to help
You can connect with one of our U.S.-based, board-certified doctors any time — usually in less than a minute. Log in or sign up at HealthTap.com, or download our Android or iOS app. Our doctors will be able to give you more top-notch medical advice on what you can do to recover as fast as possible.