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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

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Stop a Cold in Just 12 Hours

If You're Prone to Acute Bronchitis

A few days after cold symptoms appear, you may notice trouble brewing in your lungs. "Upper respiratory tract infections develop in the — no surprise — upper airways and then spread to the lower," notes Ron Eccles, Ph.D., director of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University in Wales. That's why you start coughing two or three days after a cold begins — a sign your windpipe and the tiny tubes in your lungs are becoming inflamed. These steps can help protect against infection.

  • Steer clear of cigarettes. Smoking and inhaling secondhand smoke weaken your ability to fight off viruses and bacteria. At the same time, dozens of nasty chemicals in tobacco smoke may cause inflammation in your airways, further slowing the cilia. The result: more coughing, as you try to clear globs of mucus.

  • Don't curl up in front of the fire. Breathing in the tiny particles in wood smoke can be especially irritating to airways when you have a cold, says Melvin Pratter, M.D., head of pulmonary and critical-care medicine at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, NJ. One report estimates that emissions from wood fires (as well as coal-fired power plants, cars, and other sources) cause 20,000 cases of acute bronchitis a year. If you use a wood stove for heat, be sure it burns efficiently; best is one certified by the Environmental Protection Agency.

  • Skip spray cleaners. Aerosol and pump-bottle products contain chemicals that can irritate lungs, says Dr. Pratter. "When you have a respiratory infection, take a brief holiday from cleaning."

  • Try ivy-leaf extract. In a German study of 1,350 children and adults with chronic bronchitis, more than 85 percent of those who took this botanical remedy had less pain, coughing, and mucus production. Several varieties of the extract are sold in natural foods stores.

  • Call the doctor if you have a fever, shortness of breath, or a severe cough; you have asthma, emphysema, or COPD; or you get bronchitis often.

If You're Prone to Ear Infections

They're not just kid stuff: About a third of adults with colds wind up with negative air pressure in the middle ear caused by swelling or congestion of the eustachian tubes. These tubes normally let air into the middle ear and, if necessary, drain fluid from it. A blockage or swelling can create a vacuum so that when the tube opens up again it may suck in virus-packed secretions from your nose — and lead to an infection. To prevent it:

  • Start decongestants — stat! Sprays and pills that shrink swollen nasal passages can help keep your eustachian tubes open, says Dr. Marshall. Don't waste any time: Those tiny tubes can become blocked quickly — within two to three days after a cold begins.

  • Don't pop your ears. Taking a big breath, then forcing the air back into your ears while you close your mouth and hold your nose is a good trick to try when your ears need clearing on an airplane. But it's best not to use that technique when you have a cold — you may push infected mucus into the ears.

  • Avoid smoke. In laboratory studies, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that repeated exposure to tobacco smoke (cigarettes, pipes, cigars) slowed down cilia in the eustachian tubes. "That's not helpful if you're trying to move mucus down the tubes and away from your middle ear," says Birgit Winther, M.D., of the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville.

  • Call the doctor if you have a fever, severe headache, dizziness, worsening pain or hearing, or there's swelling around your ear.

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