It’s that time of year, when the sniffles hit, your head starts pounding, and your throat feels like you swallowed a handful of thumbtacks. Even if you load up on vitamin C and obsessively slather on hand sanitizer, you could still fall victim to cold and flu season.
Luckily, you aren’t relegated to curling up under the sheets and wallowing in your own sick misery (although you’re more than welcome to do that if it will make you feel better). Instead, we tapped some doctors for their tried-and-true methods of getting rid of a cold. Unfortunately, there’s no magical quick fix.
“Despite all of the advancement of modern medicine, there is not a cure for the common cold,” says Fred Pescatore, MD, internist, and natural medicine specialist. “But there are habits, natural supplements and lifestyle changes that can keep your immune system strong so you can get reduce the duration and severity of a cold, or avoid getting one in the first place.”
Once you feel better, be sure to check out the 35 Ways Doctors Never Get Sick to stave off the next cold or flu.
“I make ginger tea by boiling fresh ginger and adding a dash of cayenne pepper and lemon juice to help with congestion,” says Tyeese L. Gaines, DO, emergency medicine physician and medical director of UltraMed Urgent Care in Skokie, IL. Not only will this spicy concoction help clear your nasal passages, but ginger is helpful for GI health (70 percent of your immune system is in your gut!) and cayenne pepper can help boost fat loss. There’s a reason these two spices ended up on our list of the 5 Best Spices for Fat Loss.
“The concoction of warm water with ginger infused helps greatly alleviate symptoms of the cold and helps your body’s natural defenses to fight any infection by inducing an immune response,” Aditi G Jha, MD, general medicine physician, says.
“Turmeric milk has also been known to be beneficial, and this I have tried and tested,” Dr. Jha says. “I got well within one night of drinking the milk boiled with a piece of turmeric in it, or use a teaspoon of [turmeric] powder. “
Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may write you a prescription. “We usually prescribe [our patients] antihistamines such as levocetirizine or fexofenadine,” Geethu Thomas, MD, family physician and general practitioner, says. Although antihistamines are usually used to treat allergies, they can help relieve nasal congestion and sneezing.
Turns out, loading up on orange juice during a cold isn’t just an old wives’ tale. “We usually ask [our patients] to [eat a] more of vitamin C-rich diet as it’s good in preventing respiratory tract infections,” Geethu Thomas., MD, family physician and general practitioner, says. Good sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruit, and lemons, as well as brussels sprouts, broccoli, and bell peppers.
Dr. Jha recommends drinking at least 3 liters of water a day to fight off dehydration. If plain water is boring to you, try drinking one of our detox waters. These fruit-infused waters will give you an extra boost of vitamins and minerals to keep your immune system strong.
“Make sure you are taking the recommended daily amount of iron, zinc, and vitamins A, E, B6, and B12,” says Danica Barron, MD, emergency medicine doctor. Take a look at your multivitamins to see if it includes the daily amount of these essential vitamins.
It’s true that we get vitamin D from the sun, and vitamin D can help with overall health. But rushing to the local tanning salon to get some rays isn’t the answer. “Tanning beds are not going to help you produce vitamin D in the skin and will increase your chances of skin cancer and looking older,” warns Dr. Barron.
Dana Corriel, MD, and internist, recommends taking a zinc supplement as soon as you notice symptoms of a cold to stave off getting full-blown sick. Dr. Barron agrees and recommends loading up on zinc-packed foods. “Lean meat and fish are high in zinc which also improves your immune response,” Dr. Barron says. Oysters, beef, and lamb are some of the best sources.
“Eat a healthy, plant-focused diet. A balanced diet will provide you with not only the aforementioned vitamins which are important for a healthy immune system, but they will also give you antioxidants which are crucial for combating inflammation,” says Dr. Barron.
“For congestion, I advise [patients] to take decongestants like pseudoephedrine if they don’t have high blood pressure,” says Dr. Gaines. “They can also use steroid nasal sprays such as Flonase or Nasonex.”
“For a cough, [patients] can use over-the-counter cough syrups with dextromethorphan, or ‘DM’ in it,” Dr. Gaines says. Robert Korn, MD, emergency medicine specialist and pediatrician, says that cough syrups with dextromethorphan are a safe first line of defense against an annoying cough.
One of the most annoying parts about being sick is the all-over body aches and pains. Luckily, these can be treated with a trip to your pharmacy. “For the aches, pains and fever, they can take over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen,” Dr. Gaines says.
“Most cold viruses last in the body for 10-14 days, so be patient with yourself,” Dr. Gaines says.
Being stressed may have played a part in getting you sick in the first place, and it certainly won’t help while you’re under the weather. Finding ways to de-stress is key. “Stress plays a key role in diminishing our body’s response to inflammation and infection through a number of processes including alterations of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, T-cell activity and production of cytokines,” Dr. Barron explains. “Engaging in activities such as yoga, meditation, hanging out with friends, petting a dog or cat and even sex have been shown to reduce stress which in turn will improve your body’s ability to fight off infection.”
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“My prescription… for a cold is Netflix Why? Watching a funny movie significantly raises your immunity,” Murray Grossan, MD, otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor), says. “Besides, watching a funny movie reduces your stress chemicals, which increases your natural immunity.” So binge watch a comedy or stream your favorite funny flicks—laughter truly is the best medicine.
Even if you’re not in the best mood, plastering a smile on your face could help. “Simply forcing a fake smile on your face, actually raises your immunity to common cold,” Dr. Grossan explains.
Warm tea isn’t just relaxing for your throat; it can help you get better, too. “Green tea and chamomile tea are excellent for boosting the immune system.” Dr. Barron says. “Green tea also contains other antioxidants such as cachectin, which is thought to protect against certain types of cancer and supports the immune system’s response to carcinogens.”
Since 70 percent of your immune system is in your gut, keeping your gut healthy by feeding the good bacteria is essential for your overall health and immunity. “Probiotics have also been shown to reduce your chance of getting ill by helping reinforce the barrier lining of your gastrointestinal tract,” Dr. Barron says. “This reduces the chance of you getting a viral or bacterial infection and improves your response to vaccines.”
Chicken noodle soup isn’t just a warm comfort food for when you’re sick. This sick day favorite can actually help you get better. “Chicken soup also contains L-cysteine that is released when you make the soup,” Dr. Gossan says. “This amino acid thins mucus in the lungs, aiding in the healing process.”
The atmosphere dryer in the winter, which could be making your symptoms worse. “Try a humidifier to keep the air moist in your home,” Dr. Pescatore says. He adds this is good for congestion.
Some people swear that starting their day with warm lemon water helps prep your body for digestion. It can also help when you’re feeling stuffed up. “Warm lemon water with honey can help loosen congestion,” Dr. Pescatore says.
Sugar doesn’t just make you fat. It can keep you sick, too. “Eat no sugar as it has been clinically proven to suppress your immune system,” Dr. Pescatore says.
“My go-to medication for a cold is Chlorpheniramine maleate or CPM,” Dr. Jha says. “This is a component of many cold medications and is highly effective to relieve symptoms. ” It may have to be prescribed by a doctor so talk to your doctor before taking it.
“Research shows natural antioxidants are valuable in supporting your immune system,” Dr. Pescatore says. “They help reduce oxidative stress and the inflammation that accompany a cold.” Antioxidants are most plentiful in fresh fruits and vegetables. Some of the best sources are berries such as blueberries and goji berries, pecans, kidney beans, and green tea.
If you have a particularly dry nose from blowing it all day, it may need a good rinse. “Rinse your nose with Saline/Xylitol. Many people pop a decongestant when allergies hit. However, these dry your nasal passages, ultimately making symptoms worse,” says Gustavo Ferrer, MD. “Before heading outside, use Xlear all-natural Saline Nasal Spray to help prevent symptoms from surfacing. Xlear contains xylitol, an ingredient found in many fruits and veggies which moisturizes, reduces tissue inflammation and naturally opens airways.”
Dairy could be making your stuffy nose worse. “If you have lots of mucus, milk and dairy products should be avoided. Research shows that it makes mucus thick thus worsening cough and post nasal,” Dr. Ferrer says.