Colds can occur at any time but are more common during the winter months. In the United States, adults experience an average of 2–3 colds every year, while children tend to get more.
This article lists nine ways to help people feel better when they suspect a cold is coming.
It also provides information about flu and COVID-19, as the symptoms of a cold can be similar to these conditions.
Cause and symptoms
A person can catch a cold virus by:
- inhaling droplets that contain virus particles from another person’s coughs or sneezes
- coming into contact with droplets that contain the virus particles on surfaces, and then touching the mouth, nose, or eyes
Cold symptoms may include:
- runny or stuffy nose
- sinus pain or pressure
- sore throat
- mild to moderate chest discomfort
Although there is no cure for the common cold, the illness typically goes away on its own in 7–10 days.
In the meantime, there are some ways to ease cold symptoms, which we outline below.
Drink plenty of fluids
The body needs water to carry out all its essential functions, including fighting off infection.
Without sufficient water, people will begin to experience symptoms of dehydration, which can make a cold feel even worse.
Some symptoms of dehydration include:
People should aim to drink plenty of water and other liquids, such as broths and herbal teas.
Get plenty of rest
If someone feels a cold coming on, they should try to get plenty of sleep and rest. This will give the immune system the best chance of fighting off the infection.
A 2015 study assessed the association between sleep and susceptibility to the common cold using 164 healthy participants. Each underwent a one-week sleep assessment before receiving a dose of rhinovirus via a nasal dropper.
Those who had fewer than 5 hours’ sleep per night had a 4.5 times greater risk of developing the common cold than those who slept for more than 7 hours per night. The researchers conclude there was a link between shorter sleep duration and increased susceptibility to the common cold.
Long-term or chronic stress can suppress the immune system. Finding ways to manage stress can help boost the body’s defenses against cold viruses and other pathogens. Some tips for managing stress include:
- deep breathing exercises
- mindfulness and meditation
- taking a warm bath before bed
Try over-the-counter medicines
The following over-the-counter (OTC) medications may help alleviate cold symptoms:
- pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen
- decongestants to help ease sinus pressure and a stuffy nose
- throat lozenges to relieve a sore throat
- cough syrups to ease a cough
However, some people should not take these medications. Always talk to a doctor or pharmacist before taking these OTC medicines or before giving them to children.
Eat a healthful diet
Eating a healthful, balanced, and varied diet will help keep the immune system strong and more effective in fighting off infections.
The Department of Health and Human Services outline the following dietary recommendations in their 2015–2020 dietary guidelines:
- a variety of vegetables from all subgroups, including:
- dark green, leafy vegetables
- red and orange vegetables
- starchy vegetables
- grains, comprising at least 50% whole grains
- fat-free or low-fat dairy, or fortified soy beverages
- a variety of protein-rich foods, such as:
- lean meats
- nuts and seeds
- soy products
- healthy oils
Honey has antioxidant and antimicrobial effects that may help combat infections.
An older 2007 study found that buckwheat honey was superior to placebo in reducing the severity and frequency of coughs in children. Those who received buckwheat honey before bed also showed significant improvements in sleep quality.
The substance also creates a thin film over the mucous membranes, which may help relieve throat pain and inflammation.
To help ease a sore throat or cough, a person can try stirring a tablespoon of honey into a cup of hot water or tea.
Increase vitamin D levels
Natural sunlight helps the body synthesize vitamin D. However, sunlight can be scarce in some parts of the world, particularly during winter. If a person struggles to get enough sun exposure, they may find it helpful to take a vitamin D supplement.
The Office of Dietary Supplements recommend that people aged 1–70 years get a minimum of 15 micrograms or 600 international units of vitamin D per day.
The research found that people who took zinc supplements experienced a shorter duration of cold symptoms compared to those who took a placebo. Specifically, their cold symptoms were shortened by an average of one or two days.
However, people should be aware that zinc products can trigger side effects. The National Health Institutes’ National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health warn that intranasal zinc swabs and gels can cause permanent loss of sense of smell. They add that zinc tablets, lozenges, and syrup can also trigger nausea and other minor gut problems.
Take vitamin C
The study found that taking at least 200 mg per day of vitamin C did not reduce the risk of getting a cold. However, it did appear to reduce the duration of cold symptoms by an average of 8% in adults and 14% in children. This translates to approximately one fewer day of symptoms.
The researchers note that further randomized controlled trials are necessary to confirm these findings.
When to speak to a doctor
Because cold symptoms can resemble COVID-19, people should call a doctor to check whether they need testing. In addition to typical cold symptoms, COVID-19 may also trigger:
- shortness of breath
- loss of taste and smell
- gastrointestinal issues, such as diarrhea or vomiting
A doctor can advise people on what to do next if they have symptoms that resemble COVID-19.
Most people with COVID-19 experience mild symptoms and tend to recover at home without medical treatment. However, a person should call the emergency services if they experience any of the following:
- difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath during walking or light activity
- persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- new confusion
- bluish discoloration of the lips or face in lighter skin people, or gray and whitish discoloration in those with darker skin
According to the CDC, call a doctor if:
- cold symptoms persist for more than 10 days
- cold symptoms are severe or unusual
- a child younger than 3 months of age becomes sick, and they are experiencing fever or lethargy
- there has been potential exposure to someone with COVID-19
Similarities to flu
Most people recover from the flu within 3–7 days, although a cough may last longer than 2 weeks. However, some people are at risk of developing complications due to this illness. Call a doctor if the person with symptoms is:
- under 5 years of age
- 65 years of age or older
- someone with an underlying medical condition
There is no cure for the common cold. However, people can take steps to ease the symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness. These include getting plenty of water and rest, eating a healthful diet, and taking OTC medicines and supplements.
A cold will usually go away on its own. If someone still feels ill after 10 days or has severe symptoms, they should speak to a doctor.
Some cold symptoms are similar to those of other viral infections, such as the flu and COVID-19. A doctor can assess whether a person may have COVID-19, and advise them on what to do next.