The 7 Steps to Stopping a Cold in Its Tracks

Drew Swantak/Thrillist

Nothing in life is more annoying than a cold. Fine, so noisy eaters and public nail trimmers are a close second... but whatever. While you can’t exactly smack the food out of someone’s mouth (how glorious that would be), colds are the rare nuisance that you don’t have to just accept as part of life. 

Next time you feel that throat a-scratchin’, follow these easy steps to knock that cold out before it’s got you down for the count.


Step 1: Assess the situation

One of the most common problems with the common cold is that it’s commonly confused for something else (say that five times fast). If you’ve got a high fever, it’s most likely not a cold. If you’ve been knocked out for more than a week with pounding headaches, death-like fatigue, chills and hot flashes, and phlegm-filled coughs, it’s not a cold... and you should definitely see a doctor. If none of these symptoms sound fun, make sure you’re doing everything you can to avoid them in the first place.
Colds are marked by scratchy throats, mild fatigue, coughing, sneezing, and mild body aches (mild being the operative word here). If you’ve assessed the situation, and decided you’ve most likely got a cold, now you can properly kick its butt without treating the wrong ailment.

Step 2: Keep your distance

By the time you’re feeling the pain, it’s too late. You’ve probably already passed it on to someone, or everyone if you blew out birthday candles yesterday. Now it’s a matter of damage control. Colds can stay contagious for up to two weeks or until symptoms disappear, so the less close contact, the better. This isn’t all bad news. “Having a cold” is a great way to keep your boss at bay while you catch up on some much-needed online shopping.

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Step 3: Drink up

Put the cork back in that bottle! We’re talking about water. In fact, most doctors would advise against drinking any booze while sick (booooo, doctors). When you’re suffering from a mild fever and coughing/sneezing your eyeballs out, your body needs some extra H2O to make up for the loss. In addition to soothing a sore throat, proper water intake boosts and protects the immune system. If you’re not a fan of plain water, try some hot tea or chicken soup instead. While many of hot tea’s healing benefits are little more than a placebo effect, it still gets water into your system. And several studies have indicated (not quite proven) that grandma’s chicken soup might actually soothe more than just your soul.

Step 4: Perform extensive sinus maintenance

A sore throat and a dry/stuffed/leaking/demon-possessed nose are the two hallmarks of any worthy cold. Exorcising those demons is a lot easier than you might think. Steam can work wonders for a congested head. Find yourself a hot shower, a humidifier, a bath house (you know: cuz you’re “sick”), or even boil some water to take in that juicy goodness. Just try not to burn your face. Once things are flowing a bit, find (or easily make) yourself a little saline solution (aka saltwater) to clear out any stubborn mucus from your nose and sinuses. Not only does this make your face less disgusting, but it can help relieve headaches as well.
Now that your nose holes are taken care of, move on to the mouth hole. Throw out those cough syrups and try some honey instead. Studies have shown that the anti-inflammatory and soothing properties of honey are potentially even stronger than over-the-counter drugs (score one for bees!). 

Next, make your throat a Jacuzzi, and gargle some warm water (with or without salt). One extensive study found that gargling water alone not only relieves throat pain, but also might prevent future occurrences. Feel free to add some salt to the mix to draw out excess fluid from your inflamed mucous membranes (double gross). You may not feel perfect after all this, but at least you’ve set yourself up to face the world before even leaving your bathroom.


Step 5: Pop some pills

If you can muster up the strength to go to the drugstore, don’t even give those megadose vitamin C concoctions a passing glance. You’re not a pirate fighting scurvy. For 99% of the population, vitamin C does absolutely nothing for treating and preventing colds, so you can disregard ads that promise otherwise.

On the opposite end of the vitamin alphabet is another popular cold remedy: zinc lozenges. Unlike vitamin C’s uselessness, zinc might -- *might* -- have some actual benefits. Studies are mixed, but recent ones have indicated that taking zinc within 24 hours of feeling symptoms might actually shorten the cold by a couple days. However, zinc can have some unpleasant side effects, especially on the stomach, so proceed with caution.

One pill you can actually count on is a mild pain reliever. Studies have shown that it doesn’t really matter if it’s acetaminophen or aspirin, though aspirin does have a lot going for it. Decongestants like Sudafed can help with the sinus mess if you absolutely have to be in public, but they’re not recommended for everyone.

Step 6: Eat, sleep, and be merry

Colds have a knack for destroying your appetite. Don’t force-feed yourself, but make sure whatever you’re eating is nutritious. Your immunity needs all the help it can get -- and cookies are not “help." Once you’re packed with saline solution, aspirin, honey, chicken soup, and steam... try to get some sleep. If this means skipping work, do it (you didn’t hear that from us)! Lack of sleep and stress work hand in hand to make you sick and keep you sick longer. We seriously can’t stress (pun!) enough the importance of relaxing and sleeping if you’re trying to beat a cold. There may be some debate out there over various home remedies for colds, but sleep isn't one of them.

Step 7: Repeat

Try this for a couple days, and you should be right as rain in no time. If you take all these steps, and things only get worse or stick around for more than a week, you guessed it: it’s doctor time. Life is full of annoying, unavoidable crap. Colds may be crap, but with a little effort, they don’t have to end up all over the bottoms of your shoes.

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Nicholas Knock is a freelance writer for Thrillist who named his humidifier Smaug. You can follow him on Twitter: @nickaknock.