There’s no real cure for the common cold, except to get through it as best you can. Oof. That’s a punch straight to the gut.
But don’t worry, there are a few things you can do from the comfort of your own home to help soothe common-cold symptoms like fever, runny nose and a sore throat.
We spoke with two experts — Sorana Segal-Maurer, MD, chief of the Dr. James J. Rahal Jr. Division of Infectious Disease at New York Hospital Queens, and Brian P. Currie, MD, MPH, vice president and senior medical director of the Montefiore Medical Center in NYC — to get the straight dope on colds.
Segal-Maurer explains that the common cold is a virus — a nasty, vindictive little beast of a thing that starts multiplying along the surface of the mucosa (that’s what lines your trachea, the back of your throat and your sinuses). Viruses invade the mucosa and start growing, and the body responds by deploying substances called cytokines, which help cells communicate with each other.
Good: Relieve A Fever (And Runny Nose)
Cytokines are the things that trigger fever, says Segal-Maurer, because viruses don’t grow well at high temperatures, and your body knows this. Dealing with a fever is a miserable thing. Higher temperatures may help the body fight the virus, but they also help keep you feeling under the weather.
Segal-Maurer says the old cold-towel-on-the-forehead remedy can help you feel a little bit better temporarily. But a cool compress won’t do much other than offer symptomatic relief, because it won’t lower your core temperature. “You can help bring down your temperature with Tylenol,” she says. “If you’re healthy [i.e., not taking meds that may cause negative interactions], then you can use a nonsteroidal like Advil or Aleve.”
And what about the messy, mucousy side of colds? “A runny nose is the body’s reaction to wash the virus away,” says Segal-Maurer. “Use a decongestant, because if you have bacteria in there, you don’t want it to get any worse.”
Better: Soothe Your Sore Throat
This may be hard to swallow, but that sore throat is the result of cold-virus damage — and you won’t feel better until the mucosa starts to heal. Until then, you’ll need some relief.
Having a sore throat makes eating a real pain, but you’ve got to eat something. “It’s a terrible idea not to eat,” says Segal-Maurer. “If your medical condition allows for it, take in juices and salty broths like chicken soup, because most people can’t chow down on hearty food when they have a virus.”
While you may be used to munching away on sore-throat lozenges, your basic hard candy can also help ease sore throat pain. “They promote salivary action,” says Segal-Maurer. “You’re going to keep salivating, and it’s going to help you swallow. Diabetics can have sugar-free candy. Hard candies make everybody feel better when they have a sore throat.”
Currie says that gargling with warm salt water can also be an effective way to help ease a sore throat. A teaspoon of salt in a quart of water is about the right mix, he says.
“You can also drink ginger-based drinks for sore throats, but not in high quantities,” says Segal-Maurer. (Overconsumption of the root can do a number on your digestion.) There are different variations on the ginger-based drink remedy. In Hong Kong, a popular (and quite tasty) cold remedy is boiled Coke with ginger and lemon. If you’re having a hard time getting your kid to gargle with warm salt water, this recipe might be a good alternative.
Best: Rest And Rehydrate
You pretty much have to grin and bear it and give your cold 48 to 72 hours to run its course. Take it easy and don’t push it. “Go to bed and stay hydrated,” says Segal-Maurer. “Staying hydrated is the most important thing because you’re losing a lot of body fluid.” She also recommends not pushing it in the exercise department. “If you have just a little runny nose, then mild to moderate exercise is OK,” she notes. “[But] pushing yourself to be ‘manly’ is a terrible idea.”
As Currie observes, “prevention is the best way to beat common colds.” He says that if you feel like you’re coming down with something, don’t go to work or school if you can help it. Stay home.
Segal-Maurer agrees. “Wash, wash, wash your hands,” she says. “And cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze. You don’t want to give this to anybody else.”