US: Doctors Explain the Best Ways to Stop a Nasty Cold Before It Even Starts

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After several years of avoiding illnesses, respiratory viruses are back in a big way. Cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are through the roof, along with high levels of cases of the flu. COVID-19 cases are increasing, too. Also in the mix? The common cold. Learning how to stop a cold before it starts is essential in staying healthy during cold and flu season.

When a cold takes over your body, it can seem like you’re at the mercy of the virus when it comes to how long it will last. “The common cold is a viral infection of your throat and nose, also known as your upper respiratory tract. Many types of viruses can cause the common cold, but the most common culprit is rhinovirus,” says Adiba Khan, M.D., a family physician at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital.

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A runny nose, sore throat, cough, congestion, mild body aches, and headaches, sneezing, and low-grade fever can leave you feeling exhausted before your symptoms start to clear up. Not to mention, a cold can feel a lot like COVID-19.

But a true cold is typically harmless, explains Deborah S. Clements, M.D., a family physician at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital. It just might make you feel crummy while you’re living through it.

The best thing you can do to feel healthy during the colder months? Stop a cold from taking over your body in the first place. In fact, there are a bevy of ways you can prevent colds and shorten their length. Here’s exactly what you can do fight them off all season long.

1. Crank up the humidifier

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Low humidity dries out your nasal passages, making it harder to trap and eliminate the micro-bugs that settle in your sinuses, eventually leading to a cold. The fix? Invest in a humidifier and keep it running when the air starts to feel dry.

“A humidifier may help to keep the mucous membranes moist. Dry mucous membranes in the nose inhibit your body’s ability to trap germs as they enter your system,” says Amber Tully, M.D., a family medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic.

Make sure you keep your humidifier clean, as the warm moist environment can become a breeding ground for mold (which can also cause cold-like symptoms if you’re allergic to it).

2. Get some vitamin D

Research shows that people who don’t get enough vitamin D are much more likely to suffer from an upper respiratory infection—causing a cough, scratchy throat, or stuffy nose—than those who load up on the sunshine vitamin, potentially because your cells depend on D to activate their immune responses. “Some studies have shown that supplementing with 400 international units (IUs) of vitamin D per day may prevent respiratory infections,” says Khan.

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Currently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggest that most adults aim for at least 600 IUs per day, but some organizations recommend much more than that. Getting enough vitamin D through your diet alone is tough (you can find it in foods like salmon, beef, egg yolks, fortified milk and orange juice, cheese, and mushrooms), so if you suspect you’re low, talk to your doctor about finding a supplement that works for you and your needs.

3. Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth

Even if you don’t notice it, you likely touch your face a lot. In fact, one small study found that the participants touched their faces an average 16 times per hour. That’s a major no-no during cold and flu season: When you come in contact with a virus—through another person or an infected surface—it can enter your system if your hands aren’t properly cleaned, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Viruses also spread by skin-to-skin contact, such as a handshake,” says Clements.

Maintain a hands-off policy. “This prevents germs on your hands being transferred into your mucous membrane (nose and mouth) and getting you sick,” says Tully.

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4. Wash your hands effectively and often

While you’re at it, make sure you’re washing your hands the right way. Use soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds (get between your fingers and underneath your nails!), says the CDC. Opt for hand sanitizer (like these travel-size bottles from Purell) if you’re in a pinch.

“If the virus is deposited on a surface or inanimate surface, you touch it, and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, you could infect yourself that way,” says Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York. “If you touch a contaminated surface, good hand hygiene will help you avoid infection.”

5. Disinfect your phone

Think of all the places you put your phone down during the day: the kitchen counter, a bathroom stall, your restaurant table—talk about a germ-fest.

In fact, a 2012 University of Arizona study found that cell phones may carry 10 times the amount of bacteria than toilet seats.

To disinfect your devices, Apple suggests using a Lysol or Clorox disinfecting wipe. Just be sure to shut down your phone, squeeze any excess liquid out of the cloth (you don’t want a pool of the stuff sitting on your screen), and dry it off with a soft lint-free cloth. Keep in mind that while bleach is great for banishing viruses, products containing the substance might damage your phone. If you have a hard time finding cleaning wipes near you, follow this guide on how to clean your phone using rubbing alcohol.

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6. Find some time to relax

Feeling on edge? If you’re already feeling run-down, it can actually pave the way for a cold, because stress causes your body to pump out excess cortisol, a hormone that can weaken your immune system’s ability to fight infection, says Tully,

So make winding down a priority: Take up yoga, try meditation, go for a daily stroll through nature, or prioritize some time after work to make dinner with your family—anything that helps you shake off a long day will help.

7. Get plenty of sleep

A good snooze is key when it comes to preventing colds. In one JAMA Internal Medicine study, researchers gave 153 healthy men and women nasal drops containing rhinovirus and tracked their sleep habits. They found that people who regularly got less than seven hours of sleep were three times more likely to come down with a cold than those who slept eight hours or more each night. The National Sleep Foundation recommends aiming for at least seven to nine hours per night.

8. Reach for zinc

Research suggests that zinc can actually decrease the growth of viruses, says Clements. Plus, taking zinc (typically in the form of zinc lozenges or zinc gluconate nasal sprays) seems to reduce the duration and severity of symptoms right after they come on, according to the NIH.

“Although the proper dosing is unclear at this time, studies have shown a benefit only at daily doses greater than 75 milligrams,” says Clements. The NIH suggests most adults need much less than that to meet their daily needs, so just go for foods rich in zinc, rather than a supplement (unless you talk to your doc about it first). Meat, tofu, oysters, and lentils are all great sources of the mineral.

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9. Label your drinking glass

“When a family member has a cold, try to use disposable glasses or label glasses. This can help to prevent accidental spread of the virus,” says Khan. Be extra careful when it comes to sharing objects that can get contaminated by a family member who is sick, especially amid COVID-19, such as telephones, towels, or utensils.

10. Power up with probiotics

Not all bacteria are bad—the good kind of bugs in your gut, found in probiotic foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kombucha, might help support your immune system. After all, a large portion of your immune system can be found right in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

One study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport actually found that rugby players who took a probiotic supplement experienced far fewer colds and GI infections than those who popped a placebo.

More research needs to be done to confirm that probiotics can truly keep viruses away, but studies suggest that the good bugs seem to be beneficial when symptoms hit, too. For example, in a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that even though college students taking probiotics or a placebo caught colds at a similar rate, those taking probiotics experienced less intense symptoms (like a stuffy nose or sore throat) for a shorter amount of time.

11. Wear a face mask

Wearing a face mask is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as other respiratory infections like a cold. Not only does it protect those around you, but research shows that a face mask helps protect the wearer, too.

Viruses, including those that cause a cold, flu, or COVID-19, typically spread from an infected person to others through the air after a cough or sneeze. When everyone wears a mask, we protect one another from our potentially infected respiratory droplets.

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What’s more, “studies demonstrate that cloth mask materials can also reduce wearers’ exposure to infectious droplets through filtration, including filtration of fine droplets, and particles less than 10 microns,” a research brief from the CDC states, noting that “multiple layers of cloth with higher thread counts have demonstrated superior performance compared to single layers of cloth with lower thread counts.”

12. Get the flu vaccine

While the cold and flu are caused by very different viruses, they can feel awfully similar when it comes to symptoms. However, the flu will hit you harder and can have risky complications, especially if you already have a weakened immune system. The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to get the flu shot every year, since the circulating viruses constantly change. The CDC recommends getting the flu shot (or nasal spray) as soon as the vaccine is available, ideally before October, but you can still get one now.

13. Avoid those who are obviously sick

Sometimes this is easier said than done, but doing your best to stay away from those who are coughing and sneezing will go a long way toward keeping you healthy, Russo points out. “If you don’t interact with someone who is sick, you’re not going to get infected,” he says. While you could pick up the common cold from touching something that’s infected and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, Russo says that respiratory secretions that are dispelled when an infected person coughs or sneezes “are an important mode of transmission.”

Keep in mind, too, that people can shed infectious viruses a day before they develop. So, while this isn’t a fool-proof way to keep you healthy, it can help.

What to do if you get a cold

If you develop cold-like symptoms, it’s a good idea to rule out other contagious viruses, like COVID-19, Russo says. After all, the currently dominant strains of the virus that are circulating often cause symptoms that can be confused with a cold and it’s a good idea to know what you’re dealing with so you can get the proper treatment and avoid spreading it to others.

If your COVID-19 test is negative, keep in mind that you may have the flu. And, if you’re able, it’s not a bad idea to get tested for that. (Pro tip, per Russo—the flu tends to come on hard and fast, verus a cold or COVID-19, which typically has symptoms that come on a little more gradually.)

Don’t have any of those? There’s no specific treatment for the common cold, but you can do a few things to help yourself feel better. The CDC recommends doing the following:

  • Rest
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Consider taking over-the-counter cold medicines to ease symptoms (just know that they won’t make your cold go away any faster)

Worth noting, per the CDC: Antibiotics won’t help if you have a cold, because they don’t work against viruses.

The bottom line: prevention really is the best medicine

Don’t freak out if you do get sick—most adults get at least one or two colds every year.

“There are multiple viruses that cause the common cold,” Russo says. In fact, the American Lung Association says that there are more than 200 different viruses that cause the common cold, including rhinoviruses, coronaviruses, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

“Even if you had a cold before, it doesn’t protect you from all the viruses that are circulating,” Russo says. Your immunity also wanes over time, he points out.

Just keep an eye on how long your cold lasts: Most people recover from colds between seven and 10 days after their symptoms started, the CDC says. If it stretches much longer than that or if you feel like you’re getting worse, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor.

“If you’re having high fevers or persistent symptoms, be sure to see your doctor to make sure that nothing else is going on,” says Clements.

After all, it’s more important than ever to get tested for COVID-19 if you think you may have been exposed to the virus. If you do happen to have a confirmed case of coronavirus rather than a cold, your doctor will guide you on next best steps depending on the severity of your symptoms.

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