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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 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.

Help Your Body Heal

Give in to sleep. When you have a cold, high levels of immune system chemicals called cytokines make you sleepier than usual. Don't fight it: Shorting your sleep for even one night blunts the body's immune response. If a cough is keeping you up, try Advil, Aleve, or another NSAID, says Dr. Gwaltney. These block prostaglandins, which experts suspect trigger the cough reflex.

Avoid intense workouts. They can make symptoms worse. But moderate activity like a 30- to 45-minute walk won't hurt — and, by boosting immune function, could help you fend off your next cold.

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