The pre-sick feeling of dread is known to many: your throat is scratchy, your head is throbbing, and you have a general feebleness about you. You’re fairly certain you’re going to feel like garbage tomorrow and there’s nothing you can do — that cold or flu that’s been going around the office is now destined to knock you out. Life is cruel.
While you may resign yourself to the fact that you’re getting sick, don’t throw in the towel just yet. There are things you can do that might shorten the duration of your cold or, at the very least, reduce your pain and suffering, says Neil Schachter, M.D., professor of medicine, pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. (Though if you prefer being a miserable, sick monster, by all means, do nothing and wallow in your infirmity.)
Tame the beast
Your first move is to pop a zinc lozenge. “Zinc is a metal that has been shown in some studies to prevent viruses from replicating,” says Dr. Schachter. “The less virus you have, the better off you are.” Specifically, it might make your cold shorter. It’s best to take lozenges as soon as you start feeling junky because that’s when they’re most effective. “Once you’re there with a box of tissues and you can’t breathe, it’s too late.” But follow the dosing instructions to the letter, he says: not only could popping too many upset your stomach, but some people say they lose their sense of taste, either temporarily or … longer than that.
Why lozenges and not sprays, you ask? Those have a slightly sketchy history. In 2009, the FDA issued a warning about Zicam’s zinc nasal sprays and swabs after receiving reports that people experienced decreased sense of smell after using them. (Taste and smell are related senses, he points out.) Zicam refutes these claims but removed the products from shelves “out of an abundance of caution.” You’ll still see sprays and swabs at the drugstore, though: Last year, Zicam introduced new formulas that don’t contain zinc. The company says they’re also clinically proven to shorten the length of a cold.
Vitamin C is another possible cold-fighter, and in addition to reducing your overall downtime, it could actually make your symptoms suck less. Dr. Schachter says it hasn’t been overwhelmingly proven to work, but it’s reasonably safe so it’s worth a shot. Anything not to feel like a sniffling zombie, right? He recommends taking 250 to 500 milligrams of vitamin C once a day for the first few days of your cold. Of course, you can drink orange juice, but there’s only about 125 milligrams in an eight-ounce glass, so you’d need to throw back a few to get the same effect as a supplement.
Once your cold hits for real, you’re on the defensive and you might choose the most aggressive-sounding pills at the drugstore. But beware the OTC combination drugs if you’re going to use another medicine of any kind, even a pain reliever–slash–fever reducer, he says. These multi-ingredient formulas often contain aspirin or acetaminophen so you could be doubling up without even realizing it. Instead, Dr. Schachter suggests taking an antihistamine like Allegra, Claritin, or Zyrtec to dry up your nasal passages and make it easier to breathe, as well as an anti-inflammatory such as Tylenol or Advil to help with the wretched body aches that come with getting sick, which are the result of chemicals called cytokines being released. He typically doesn’t recommend decongestants because they can give you a rebound effect: the more you use them, the less effective they’ll be. “You take them and you can breathe for about three seconds and then all of a sudden you’re totally blocked up.” No thanks. (Decongestants are also not good for people with high blood pressure because they can raise it even more.)
Antihistamines will help with mild congestion, but if you’re really stuffed, try a saline nasal spray, he says. Not only will it help thin the fluids created by the mucous membranes in your upper airway (a.k.a. nose gunk), making it easier to blow that stuff out, but since it’s a high-concentration salt solution, it will suck water out of your nasal passages, reducing swelling and helping to bring sweet, sweet oxygen through your nostrils once more. Try that twice a day and more often if it’s really bad (“I hab a cold.”). Saline nasal spray won’t produce a rebound effect because it’s acting mechanically on your nasal tissue, unlike decongestants, which interact with receptors in your blood vessels that can become desensitized.
In general, it’s good to keep gunk and mucous at a minimum, because when the fluid in your sinuses and ear canals gets thick, it can cause blockage and lead to infections as other cells and debris accumulate, he says. All of which could spell a sinus infection or bronchitis — not how you planned to spend your weekend. Plus, treating congestion is good for your fellow man. “The more congested you are, the more likely you are to contaminate other surfaces that people who don’t have a cold may put their hands on. There’s that humanitarian aspect to it.”
Beyond pills and saline, hitting the fluids will help you stay hydrated and keep your mucous thinner. Dr. Schachter says warm liquids are the most helpful because drinking them can help loosen things up. Tea is a good candidate since it also contains a compound called theobromine that’s thought to act like a bronchodilator, a fancy word for something that helps you breathe better. You can certainly drink coffee but if it prevents you from resting, then something with less of a jolt is probably better, he says. Chicken soup happens to contain warm liquid, and at least one study suggests that breathing in the aerosolized fat when we sip it can help reduce levels of those crappy pain-inducing cytokines, he says.
And if you’re doing all of this stuff but you still feel worse when you’re trying to sleep at night, that’s normal, Dr. Schachter says. When you lie down, mucous has an opportunity to collect in the back of your throat which does not a restful slumber make. He recommends drinking warm liquids and doing another round of nasal spray before bed. Propping yourself up on a few pillows can do wonders, too.
An ounce of prevention
The inconvenient truth is that the best way to truly prevent a cold is not to get infected with the virus in the first place. “The thing that’s sometimes forgotten is colds are infectious diseases that are transmitted from one person to another,” he says. “So if you’re in the presence of someone who has a cold, clearly you have to exert some caution.”
It’s a good idea to carry alcohol-based sanitizer and disinfect after being around someone who’s sick, he says, but it doesn’t hurt to de-germ in everyday hypochondria-inducing situations, like after touching doorknobs, using communal pens, or taking a plane ride with 100 of your new best friends. During cold and flu season, he suggests you “be cautious and err on the side of decontaminating yourself.” Let your germophobe flag fly, and pass the hand sanitizer.