For most of us, it’s time to say goodbye to the sunny seasons and hello to the colder months of the year. While winter brings many things to look forward to—the holidays, seeing family, travel—it’s also when you’re most likely to catch a cold. Because of this, we spoke with a preventive medicine expert to find out how you can stop a cold in its earliest stages. Read on to learn what works and what doesn’t.
What are the symptoms?
It’s important to address the early signs and symptoms of a cold, so you know what to look out for before self-diagnosing and deciding on treatments. “The symptoms onset for a cold is usually pretty gradual, whereas influenza is usually a very abrupt onset,” says William Schaffner, M.D., medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and professor of medicine and preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. “With influenza, all of a sudden you know you’re sick. Whereas, with a cold, you may drift into feeling crummy for a day or two.”
When you catch a cold, most of your symptoms generally take place above the neck. If you’re experiencing body aches and pains paired with other symptoms throughout the body, you most likely have the flu. “The things that are very common with a cold are sneezing, stuffy nose, and a sore throat,” Dr. Schaffner notes.
The two exceptions to this rule of thumb are fever and coughing. “On the other hand, a fever with a cold is not at all common. If you get one, it’ll be very slight. They’re much more common with influenza and often bring you to high temperatures around 102 degrees,” he adds. Taking your temperature can be one of the best ways to tell if you have a cold or the flu because the common cold rarely involves a fever higher than 101 degrees. Likewise, having a cough is uncommon when colds are concerned. If you do happen to pick one up, it’s usually moderate.
To summarize, if you’ve felt a slow onset of sneezing, a stuffy nose, and a sore throat (and perhaps a slight cough or fever), chances are you’ve caught a cold. Now that you’re sure, here’s what you can do to stop or subdue it ASAP.
The key to resolving a cold is to address the symptoms while your body fights it off. That means staying hydrated is paramount. “Keeping yourself well hydrated is important because that keeps your mucous membranes moist,” Dr. Schaffner says. He recommends drinking more water when you have a cold than you typically would otherwise.
But downing a few extra glasses of water isn’t the only way to keep yourself hydrated. There are certain drinks you’ll want to avoid because of their ability to dehydrate you or worsen your symptoms. “Remember that alcohol and caffeinated beverages, like coffee and tea, are diuretics. They have the tendency to dry you out,” Dr. Schaffner adds. “Beware of too many fruit juices and sodas because they have a lot of sugar in them.” Some great sources of hydration throughout a cold are water, decaf tea, and classic soups, which not only provide moisture but also nourishment, comfort, and warmth without being too heavy on your stomach.
Use OTC Medication
Taking medications while fighting off a cold can be a tricky situation. Remember that your main goal is to subdue your symptoms and make yourself feel better, not cure the cold itself (that’s your body’s job). “Some medications may give you some help with symptoms. Things like Tylenol, Advil, and Motrin can help with minor aches and pains and particularly with a sore throat,” Dr. Schaffner says. “Some people favor over-the-counter medications that work best for them, like decongestants and nasal sprays. You can try and see whichever works for you.”
The last thing you want to do is take antibiotics. “Antibiotics have no effect on the cold because the cold is caused by a virus that antibiotics don’t work against. Taking them just subjects you to all of their side effects,” Dr. Schaffner explains. “There are no medicines we have currently that tackle the cold virus directly.” Before you reach into your medicine cabinet, make sure that what you’re grabbing is helpful, not hurtful.
You may have heard this before—turns out it’s true. When you come down with a cold, some mild exercise can do your body and mind good. “This is not the time to try and break the Olympic record, but some mild exercise tends to make you feel better,” Dr. Schaffner advises. That means opting for walking, jogging, or light weight lifting over race training, intense cardio, and heavy weight lifting. “Don’t push yourself or try to make a personal best. Don’t try to go through your whole drill. Just getting yourself moving is a good way to make you feel better,” he continues.
Last, but definitely not least, rest and sleep are crucial. “Resting and getting a bit of extra sleep, particularly early on when you have a cold, tends to be a really good thing. It helps your body recover,” Dr. Schaffner confirms. While you address your symptoms with the methods above, it’s essential that your body also has the opportunity to fight off the cold. When you rest and remain low energy, your body can use more energy to take care of things.