When you feel under the weather, all you want to do is lay on the couch with a weighted blanket and watch reruns of Law and Order while slurping chicken noodle soup. That’s because your body is working overtime to try and squash the bug as soon as possible. With so much work going on behind the scenes, it’s no wonder you feel tired, sluggish, and achy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average American adult suffers two to three colds per year while children usually catch them more often.
Here’s what your body is up to when it happens.
A runny nose is annoying but it’s your body’s way of attempting to continue washing away germs, and its first line of defense. Your body orders the extra production of mucus to clear your nose’s lining of potentially harmful germs and bacteria. According to Dr. Stella Lee, MD, from the University of Pittsburgh, “As mucus goes into overdrive, your mucus lining swells and your nasal cavity fills with excess fluid. This can drip out of the nose itself—a medical condition known as rhinorrhea, which the rest of us call a runny nose.” If you get sick, it means your nose simply didn’t have a strong enough defense against the pathogens.
Your nasal passages and the skin around your nose may swell during a cold from irritation due to increased mucus and using too many tissues. It can also be caused by a dilation of your blood vessels. When your body realizes a cold has taken over, it sends tiny protein cells called cytokines from the immune system. These are like a distress signal that alerts your white blood cells and blood vessels to work overtime and try to get rid of the virus.
When cytokines are sent out and your body reacts to these messages, it causes dilation of your blood vessels, which leads to the symptoms of inflammation and puffiness. A study published in International Anesthesiology Clinics confirms that, “Proinflammatory cytokines are produced predominantly by activated macrophages and are involved in the up-regulation of inflammatory reactions.” This inflammation is uncomfortable but it’s an important part of your body’s immune response.
With so much extra mucus inside your head during a cold, your hearing can be affected too. Your eardrums work best when the pressure is equalized on both sides. An influx of mucus can easily cause your eustachian tube to get blocked and mess with the pressure levels inside your eardrums.
“When your eustachian tube is blocked, not only does it prevent the middle ear from having the same amount of air pressure as outside the ear, but the middle ear can also fill with mucus,” says Eric Branda, AuD, Ph.D. from Signia. “When sound cannot be conducted efficiently through the middle ear, you experience a conductive hearing loss.” While muffled sound is annoying, it should go away as soon as your mucus begins to disappear.
When your immune system is in overdrive and sending antibodies to attack the cold pathogens, you’re bound to experience side effects from the hard work your body is putting in. A sore throat is a common side effect that’s caused by a combination of your inflamed blood vessels and an overproduction of mucus.
According to a study published in Canadian Family Physician, “Viruses cause 85% to 95% of throat infections in adults and children younger than 5 years of age.” Your sore throat should go away as soon as your mucus buildup and inflammation clear.
Body aches and pains are common when you have a cold and may be attributed to a type of cytokine your body produces called interleukins. Production of these protein cells is increased in an attempt to fight off cold pathogens and grow your white blood cell count. With added protein cells, your body can feel inflamed, sore, and achy.
Information presented in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology confirms that interleukins “play essential roles in the activation and differentiation of immune cells, as well as proliferation, maturation, migration, and adhesion. They also have pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory properties. The primary function of interleukins is, therefore, to modulate growth, differentiation, and activation during inflammatory and immune responses.” While it may feel miserable, this overproduction of interleukins can help kill your cold.
When you have a cold, you’re more likely to experience chronic bouts of sneezing. While these sneezes may seem to exhaust your body further, there are a few ways they can actually help you get rid of your cold. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “A sneeze is a sudden, forceful, uncontrolled burst of air through the nose and mouth.” It’s caused by an irritation to the mucus membranes in the nose or throat. Not only does the increased production of mucus cause sneezing, it’s also your body’s way of continuing to attempt to rid your nasal passages of the cold’s pathogens.
According to a study published in Medical Hypotheses, your body may induce a sneeze to prevent debris from getting into your lungs. “It is proposed that the high pressure stimulates secretory neurons via branches in the roof of the mouth. The nasal secretion dilutes irritant material in the nose and thus prevents it from getting into the lungs.” Sneezing when you have a cold can help expel mucus and continue to protect you from other germs and bacteria.
A fever is a rise in your body’s temperature and is a common symptom of a cold. You may experience a fever as your body works to combat virus cells. According to the Mayo Clinic, there’s no cause for concern with a fever “unless it reaches 103 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.”
Your body also uses a fever to protect your immune system, so it’s an important step in recovering from your cold. According to Dr. Doug Nunamaker from Atlas M.D., “A fever is nature’s antibiotic. Let it ride.” While fevers can be concerning, a low-grade fever is your body’s way of kicking out your cold.
When you experience coughing while suffering from a cold, it may be due to an overproduction of mucus. This mucus buildup can irritate your throat and lungs, causing you to cough. According to Dr. Laura B. Boyd, M.D. from Elmhurst-Edward Health Center, “Mucus builds up when you have a cold, and your nasal cavity and sinuses will keep dripping mucus in the back of your throat, creating a tickle effect that will make you want to cough.”
Your body can also use coughing as a way to potentially expel virus cells. It’s normal to have a lingering cough after your cold goes away due to post-nasal drip and residual inflammation. However, if your cough gets worse or is accompanied by a wheeze or loss of breath, you may need to see a doctor.
Your low-grade fever may be accompanied by body chills. Your body induces these small shivers of movement in an attempt to increase its temperature. In addition to developing a fever, your body chills may also be the result of your body’s production of cytokines.
According to a study published in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, “When cytokines are released into the circulation, systemic symptoms such as fever, nausea, chills, hypotension, tachycardia, asthenia, headache, rash, scratchy throat, and dyspnea can result. In most patients, the symptoms are mild to moderate in severity and are managed easily.” Body chills can put you down for the count when you have a cold. But keep in mind, the release of these protein cells can help beef up your immune system and get rid of your illness faster.
Now that you know more about what your body is up to when you’ve been infected with a cold, your sleepiness may come as no surprise. Your body is producing more mucus, white blood cells, and protein cells in an effort to fight tooth and nail against cold pathogens. With your body hard at work on the front lines, it’s important to give it as much sleep as it asks for.
Not only does adequate sleep help your body to fight the cold, it also can prevent you from getting sick again. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine examined 153 healthy men and women and their sleeping habits. The study concluded, “Participants with less than seven hours of sleep were 2.94 times more likely to develop a cold than those with eight hours or more of sleep.” If your cold is wearing you out, give yourself a break and rest.
The symptoms of a cold are uncomfortable, annoying, and intrusive. But they’re your body’s way of fighting against your illness so you can feel well again. Don’t be stingy with your sick days and give your body the rest it needs when you’re sick. It’s hard at work to make you healthy again!
And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don’t miss these 70 Things You Should Never Do For Your Health.