Humankind has advanced pretty far, all things considered. We have self-driving cars. We've (kind of) developed male birth control. We invented Oreo pudding-filled donuts. But that pesky common cold? Still no cure.
Thankfully, there are certainly ways to kick this illness’ inevitable yearly visit -- or at least make its appearance a little shorter and a little more tolerable. We talked to Dr. Alison Amsterdam, a physician at NYU Langone Medical Center, for an explanation of what goes down when the cold invades your body, and some tips on how to get rid of it.
Colds come in all shapes and sizes
They can be big or small, include coughing or sneezing, and last a couple days or a couple weeks. That’s why diagnosis can be difficult. "It is difficult to distinguish the common cold from other illnesses such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and influenza without examining the patient," says Dr. Amsterdam. She's seen people come in thinking they just had a cold, when it ended up being something much more serious. That's why she recommends seeing a doctor just to be safe, instead of going down the Google rabbit hole. "This is one of the areas of medicine where the art and science are both required."
Prevention comes down to taking care of yourself
Sure, the flu shot will help you fend off the other major winter illness, but there's no magic trick to preventing a cold. Dr. Amsterdam recommends the typical routine of frequent hand washing and coughing into your elbow. But the best advice is the stuff you don't want to hear: Stop eating so many cheeseburgers, cut down on your beer consumption, and don't stay up really late just to finish one more Game of Thrones episode. A healthy immune system is the best defense.
OK, so you took care of yourself and still caught it. What now?
Your first step to getting better fast is going to depend on all the things already mentioned: making sure you're getting the nutrients and rest your body needs.
There are more specific tips to help you overcome the cold, too:
Drink all the liquids you can, and maybe you can justify a frozen dessert
Avoid coffee, soda, and alcohol, which dehydrate the body (sorry). Opt for water, juice, and decaffeinated tea, which keep you hydrated and help loosen up any congestion issues. That's also why chicken broth-based soup is a standard.
Take it easy when it comes to milk, though. Dairy can make your phlegm thick, and might actually irritate; on the other hand, cold treats can be soothing, like a tasty little ice pack for your throat, so maybe opt for a sorbet or vegan ice cream. For once, you can justify the calories, because you're probably not eating enough when you're sick. Gargling saltwater -- 1/4 to 1/2tsp of salt dissolved in 8oz of warm water -- will do the trick for a sore throat, too. (But it’s not nearly as tasty.)
It's OK to take some drugs
The over-the-counter kind! Cold medicines that contain a decongestant will help break up congestion and relieve your cough. Stay away from antihistamines, which can have the same positive effect, but could make you very sleepy. Nasal sprays work well, too, though they can have reserve effects if you overdo it.
Vitamin C, echinacea, and other "natural" cures are a mixed bag
Studies are often split when it comes to commonly used home cold remedies, which isn't very helpful. Vitamin C probably doesn't do much for you, especially once you've caught a cold, though it's also not going to make things worse.
Echinacea may help reduce symptoms or shorten a cold, though studies on the herb have used different varieties, making conclusions difficult.
A review of zinc lozenges and syrup found that taking zinc orally may shorten colds, though the Mayo Clinic doesn't recommend it because "you can't really know what's in the zinc product you take." Whatever you do, avoid nasal sprays containing zinc; the Mayo Clinic says they can cause a permanent loss of smell, which is obviously way worse than a cold.
Dr. Amsterdam also cautions against herbal supplements and vitamins. "They are not FDA-regulated. This means that they may or may not contain what is on the label," she warns.
The best remedy is prevention
Yeah, yeah, it's such a mom answer. But it's the truth. Everyone is going to catch colds. It's just a part of winter hibernation. But the better you take care of yourself -- eating a colorful diet, drinking lots of water, getting plenty of sleep -- the better armed you'll be to fend off germs.