flu season

Are You Secretly Making Your Cold Worse?

Photo: Roos Koole/Getty Images

Over the weekend I came down with a pretty nasty cold: body aches, congestion, coughing, fatigue, the whole thing. I started feeling sick on Friday, and spent most of Saturday horizontal, drinking water and tea and eating soup like I knew I was supposed to. On Sunday I felt a little better, and I assumed things would improve from there, but on Monday, I felt like shit again, which surprised me, like it surprises me every time I get a cold. In case I was just imagining it, I asked some colleagues if they also experience a similar “fake-out” with the common cold, and they all said yes. Why does this happen, and is there a medical reason for it?

According to Barry Grossman, an internist at the NYU Langone Tisch Center at Essex Crossing, many people “make some mistakes” when it comes to dealing with the common cold — and that these mistakes can even prolong your symptoms.

Don’t Stop Hydrating

The first is that we stop hydrating at the first sign of improvement. “As soon as patients get sick, they’re drinking a lot of tea, but as soon as they start feeling better, they stop, and go back to their usual ways,” Grossman says. But because the cold virus builds up a lot of extra-thick mucus in our bodies, we need continuous hydration to get rid of it. The longer it sticks around, the longer we experience symptoms — and the higher the risk of trapping other viruses, too.

Don’t Over-Rely on Cold Meds

The second mistake people with colds make is immediately dosing themselves with over-the-counter meds like Sudafed and Afrin nasal spray. “Over the counter remedies are a double-edged sword,” says Grossman. “They help you sleep because they clear up your nose, but after a few days, our body is going to overcome the medicines, and we’ll just lose the benefit, and the symptoms will return with a vengeance.” With Afrin especially, it’s really important to follow the three-days-maximum rule printed on the box. Afrin works by shrinking the swollen blood vessels and tissues in your nose that cause congestion, but if we depend on it too heavily, our noses become … well, dependent.

So common is this particular dependency that Grossman tells me it was covered in his medical school class on addiction. “The professor walked in on the first day and says ‘Raise your hand if you have Afrin in your book bag,’” says Grossman. “I looked at him and I thought, this guy’s insane. But I looked around the classroom, and out of 200 people, half of them raised their hands.” I, too, love Afrin. But while I’ve always fearfully followed the directions, searching “addicted to Afrin” on Twitter makes it clear there are plenty of rebels out there.

Rest and Be Patient

Grossman isn’t saying we should avoid cold meds outright, but that we should be careful, and use them sparingly. Unfortunately, the best remedies for the common cold are boring and slow. “There’s no great remedy for the common cold but taking ibuprofen or Tylenol to decrease fever,” says Grossman. The thing you’ve always heard about drinking lots of fluids is true, and important, and so is sleep. (“Sleeping is when our immune system really revs up,” Grossman adds.) Also important, I’m sorry to say, is patience. The common cold is often a seven to ten day ordeal, not a two to three day one, and that means hydrating all the way through.

Are You Secretly Making Your Cold Worse?