10 Ways to Get Rid of a Cold Fast—and What Could Make You Feel Worse
While there’s still no real cure for the common cold, here’s what you can do to help ease your symptoms—and shorten the time you’re sick.
Sure, your work and your family are important, and you don’t have time to lie in bed. But when you feel a cold coming on, try to give yourself a break for at least the first few days. Your body needs that time to heal. And rest is one of the most beneficial things you can do to recover from a cold quickly. Think of it as being kind to your work or school colleagues as well; research shows that the first few days of a cold (and a day or two earlier, before you even know you’re sick) is when you’re most contagious.
“Rest is absolutely a good treatment, and I would encourage people not to go outside—at least not in crowded areas where you could transmit the virus to others,” says Michael Incze, MD, a resident physician in internal medicine at University of California, San Francisco. How fast can cold viruses spread? One study found that a virus placed on a single doorknob in an office could contaminate the entire building within hours.
You lose a lot of liquid from congestion, sneezing, and constantly blowing your nose; replacing those fluids will help you feel better faster. Water and juice are fine, but warm liquids are especially comforting and might help ease congestion by increasing mucus flow. Try salty broths and liquids like chicken soup to replace electrolytes, herbal teas, or just hot water with lemon. There are studies that show chicken soup really does help get rid of a cold fast.”I do recommend hot liquids. But use common sense,” says Cat Livingston, MD, a family physician with Oregon Health Sciences University. “There have been a couple of reports that people were so aggressive with fluids it actually caused harm.” Try this south-of-the-border chicken tortilla soup for a new take on the classic chicken noodle broth.
“Gargling with salt water can be helpful for a sore throat,” says Dr. Livingston, who co-authored a paper for the American Academy of Family Physicians on treatments for symptoms of the common cold. The Mayo Clinic recommends a formula of one-quarter to one-half teaspoon of salt dissolved in an 8-ounce glass of warm water to help soothe a scratchy throat. Check out these 16 natural recipes for sore throat gargles.
Yes: Saline nasal drops, sprays, irrigation
“Things like Neti pots and nasal irrigation can often help relieve congestion,” explains Dr. Incze, who recently collaborated on a patient information page about the common cold for the American Medical Association. “There have been studies to show those work. If you use a Neti pot, keep it clean and use distilled water or water that’s been sterilized by boiling.” (Just be sure to let it cool first; don’t burn yourself.) Over-the-counter saline drops and sprays can also help relieve stuffiness and congestion. If you opt for OTC decongestant drops or sprays, don’t use them for more than five days. After that, you risk having rebound symptoms when you stop.
Yes: OTC cold and cough meds
There’s a reason that many manufacturers offer combination drug therapies for colds. “There’s some evidence that the combination of antihistamine and decongestants helps decrease inflammation,” says Dr. Livingston. She explains that antihistamines alone aren’t effective for treating cold symptoms. “But in combination with decongestants, they can help improve symptoms if you start within the first couple of days.” Here’s a guide to taking your cold meds correctly.
Yes: OTC pain relievers
Pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) don’t do anything to fight the cold virus, but they can help you feel better if you have a headache or muscle aches along with your cold. “Take a look at the daily recommended limits, and make sure you take into account what kind of medical conditions you have, and what other medications you’re taking,” says Dr. Incze. “For instance, if you have kidney disease, naproxen or ibuprofen aren’t a good idea.” Read labels carefully. Many over-the-counter cold remedies are combinations of drugs, so if you take a pain reliever plus a cold remedy you might be getting a double dose of acetaminophen or another analgesic.
Maybe: Humidifiers and vaporizers
A 2017 medical review of heated or humidified air delivered by one specific device (RhinoTherm) found that “current evidence does not show any benefits or harms from the use of heated, humidified air…” Translation: There’s no evidence it helps, but there’s no harm in trying it if you think it might make you feel better. Plenty of people feel that adding moisture to the air soothes irritated nasal passages and helps loosen congestion. If you do decide to try it, the Mayo Clinic recommends using a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer, and that you change the water daily and keep the unit clean according to the manufacturer’s instructions to prevent the growth of bacteria or mold.
“Anecdotally, honey can help relieve symptoms, but I don’t think it’s a huge immune booster,” says Dr. Incze. However, people with sore throats and coughs often swear by the sweet, soothing syrup. Add some to your tea if it feels good, but never give it to children under the age of one. Find out more health benefits of honey here.
Studies have been mixed, but there’s some evidence that zinc lozenges can shorten the duration of a cold by a day or so, if you start taking them within 24 hours of your first symptoms. One recent study at the University of Helsinki in Finland found that on average, taking zinc lozenges cut the duration of a cold by one third. But don’t bother taking the mineral if more than a day has gone by since your symptoms began—at that point, it won’t help. Also, some people find zinc difficult to take because of side effects like nausea and changes to their taste and smell. If you do decide to try it, read the label to determine the correct dosage. “And never, ever put zinc up your nose,” says Dr. Livingston. “It can affect your sense of smell forever.”
“There’s mixed evidence on this herb,” says Dr. Livingston. “There have been a number of positive studies and a number of neutral studies. A lot of people have interpreted that to mean it’s ineffective against cold symptoms.” But there might be another reason for the mixed results. Herbal products can vary in quality and potency, she says. “So echinacea might be slightly effective…but it might depend on the version you take.” As with zinc, echinacea seems to be most effective if you start taking it when you first notice cold symptoms. And since the herb can interact with many other medications, check with your doctor before taking it. Here are 14 medicinal herbs, including echinacea, you can grow at home.
No: Vitamin C
If you’ve already got a cold, there’s no point in taking vitamin C—it won’t help your symptoms or get rid of the cold faster. And if you’ve been taking vitamin C regularly beforehand, it won’t stop you from getting a cold, either. “But if you have been taking vitamin C, once you do get a cold, it might be a day shorter,” says Dr. Livingston. Keep in mind, though, that megadoses can carry side effects. A 1000 mg dose of vitamin C is equivalent to the amount in 14 oranges, and scientists warn that the body isn’t really designed to handle this much vitamin C at once. Here are 11 vitamin C foods that are also natural fat burners.
Your grandparents may have added a shot of whiskey to their tea (along with honey or lemon) as a homemade cold remedy, but you’ll want to omit the booze in that home remedy. “I don’t think there’s any benefit at all, and there are potential harms,” says Dr. Incze. “Alcohol can be dehydrating, like a diuretic. And it can exacerbate the effects of certain cold medicines since it’s sedating like antihistamines—which are in a lot of nighttime cold remedies. That combination, of alcohol and antihistamines, could lead to falls.”
This is the biggest “no” of all. “Antibiotics are great when you have a bacterial infection, but a cold is almost never a bacterial infection. It’s viral,” explains Dr. Incze. Yet so many people get a prescription when they go to the doctor with cold symptoms, he says. And taking antibiotics when you don’t need them just gives bacteria an opportunity to build up resistance to the drugs. “We’re creating superbugs with the bacteria that are out there,” says Dr. Incze. When you have a cold avoid going to the doctor if possible, he says: “If you do go, there’s a good chance you’ll get a prescription for antibiotics.” The best plan for a cold is simply to wait it out—your symptoms should be better in a week to 10 days. If two weeks go by and you’re still sick, seek medical advice. When you do, be sure to ask your doctor these 12 questions before taking an antibiotic.