Get lots of sleep when you start feeling tired
We're generally wired to try to push through any minor physical symptoms, but that's our first mistake, because we should really be listening to our bodies instead. You know that super tired feeling you sometimes get that makes you want to sleep for days? It could signal that your immune system is weakening, so hit the sheets and make sure to get a full night's sleep. Whether you're extra sleepy or not, it pays to catch quality sleep (we asked sleep experts for their secrets to a solid snooze). A study led by researchers at Carnegie Mellon found that people who got fewer than seven hours of sleep a night were almost three times as likely to get a cold than those who got more than eight hours a night.
Drink lots of fluids to open up a stuffy nose
When you realize you can't breathe through your nose easily, your nasal passages might need some moisture to keep cold germs from settling in. "Colds are minor upper respiratory illnesses, and the symptoms usually first start in the nose," says Evangeline Lausier, MD, an assistant clinical professor at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. "The cold virus attacks these nasal areas, and the body fights back by secreting more mucus to mechanically flush out the virus." You can help your body along by hydrating, which will keep your mucus thin and easy to pass, and your mucus membranes moist, Dr. Lausier says. (Here are some clever ways to stay hydrated.)
Reduce stress if you're feeling rundown
If that big project at work is leaving you depleted at the end of the day, you could be headed for a cold. Doctors are still trying to understand the connection between stress and sickness, but one thing is clear: Chronic stress is not good for the immune system. In a landmark study in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that people who were more stressed were more likely to get sick. Recently, newer research has shown that it's not actually the increase in stress hormones that causes you to fall ill—but rather that your body is so used to the increased levels that it can't use them to fight off viruses. So if you're feeling worn out, try to catch a relaxing break. (These are other signs stress could be making you sick.)
Gargle with salt water for a scratchy throat
It seems counterintuitive—doesn't pouring salt on a wound make things worse? But actually, the rinse reduces inflammation. "Gargling helps reduce swelling and mucus collection in the back of the throat and nasal passages, where the cough receptors are," Dr. Lausier explains, which prevents you from hacking. Research supports this home remedy: In a study from Japan, volunteers were asked to regularly gargle with salt water while others did not. After 60 days, the gargling group had a 40 percent decrease in colds compared to the control group. The Mayo Clinic advises adding 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt to an eight-ounce glass of warm water. Just don't swallow it! Check out these other home remedies to soothe a sore throat.
Take a hot shower to ease congestion
If you're starting to blow your nose more often than usual, it might be a sign you're getting sick—although Dr. Lausier says it can be hard to tell seasonal allergy symptoms from a cold. In either case, a hot shower can work wonders. Other safe ways to relieve nasal symptoms include using a saline spray or a neti pot. These make "mucus thinner, especially if you use an irrigation spray bottle or neti pot to move that mucus," Dr. Lausier says. "The salt—and steam—also can help shrink swollen membranes so you can breathe easier." Humidifiers are another way to help mucus move along, especially as the air outside gets drier. "During a cold, dry air can make membranes and mucus dry out quickly, so using a humidifier is good at the onset of colds," Dr. Lausier says. (You really shouldn't be breathing through your mouth, though.)
Eat chicken soup for sinus pressure
When you're starting to get a cold, you may feel like your face itself hurts! Watery, tired eyes, pressure in your cheeks, and even a headache could signal that a virus is taking hold in your sinuses. One homemade remedy that's been around since ancient times is chicken soup—but does it really work? "I think chicken soup is great for hydration—hot liquids, salt and electrolytes," Dr. Lausier says. "What goes in it can also provide healing properties: Onions and garlic can reduce the viscosity of mucus and help prevent or lessen congestion." Science backs up chicken soup's anti-inflammatory properties. A now-famous study from the University of Nebraska tested how certain white blood cells, which fight off infection, reacted to chicken soup, and concluded that the soup actually did have a positive effect. Dr. Lausier says that other cold-fighting foods include raw garlic, ginger, and chili peppers, a natural decongestant. (Here are some other foods that will boost your immune system.)
Do light exercise for chest congestion
Although your body clearly needs rest and the proper amount of sleep, Dr. Lausier says an "excellent" way to boost your immune system is with a bit of light exercise. It's not a surprise that regular exercise can help keep you healthy—one study from the University of Washington in Seattle showed that women who exercised had fewer colds than those that didn't. Other research has shown that although exercising moderately during a cold didn't reduce its severity or length, it did reduce the symptoms, so the participants actually felt better. One explanation, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, is that it helps flush germs out of the lungs and airways. So, exercise could help if you're starting to feel that tightness in your chest—but stick to walking or other light tasks that keep your heart rate under 100 beats per minute, and stay hydrated.
Prop yourself up with pillows for a cough
When you're getting a cold you should rest up—but, ironically, lying flat on your back isn't good for you either, as gravity can cause the congestion in your nasal passages to drip down your throat, making it sore and causing a cough. Coughing while lying flat isn't very comfortable, and it can keep you awake. Instead, try propping yourself up to "reduce the cough receptor irritation in the back of the throat that causes cough," Dr. Lausier says. This also can help move that mucus along and make it easier to breathe. Don't miss more easy ways to make your bed cozier.
Try vitamins and herbs for that "unwell" feeling
You know when you just feel "off"? At the slightest twinge of being not quite right, try the herb echinacea. "The evidence around use of echinacea is mixed, but it may shorten the duration and severity of a cold if taken at the first sign and used for two to three days," Dr. Lausier says. Zinc is another supplement that may help, potentially shortening the length of cold symptoms. Walking Dead fans: Remember when Herschel successfully used elderberry to treat an outbreak of a mysterious virus? That plot line was actually based in science. "Elderberry is used in Europe for flu and colds and may [help] the body's immune mediators that fight viruses," Lausier says. Also, make sure you're not vitamin D deficient: According to a study led by the University of Colorado, people who had higher levels of vitamin D had fewer colds than those with lower levels. And what about good old vitamin C? "Data on vitamin C is mixed, but it may reduce the illness by a day or so," she says, though it's not generally effective for prevention. Check with your doctor before starting a vitamin or herb regimen. (Here are 10 natural remedies for colds.)