How to Stop a Cold

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on August 31, 2016
From the WebMD Archives

One day you’re fine. The next you have a scratchy throat, watery eyes, and a runny nose. There’s a tickle in the back of your throat, and your normally high energy is nowhere to be found.

Yes, these are early signs that you’re coming down with something. But don’t grab your tissue box and hop into bed just yet -- there are ways to nip that cold in the bud.

Rest and Cut Your Stress

There’s a "mind-body" link when it comes to fighting off a cold, says Irene M. Estores, MD, of University of Florida Health. If you feel tired, overworked, sad, or angry, those emotions can sink your mood. That can slow your immune system just when you need it running at full power to fight the cold virus.

Listen to your body when you feel a cold coming on. Get all the sleep you can. Try to manage on your stress, too. "When you’re stressed out, you’re more likely to get a cold," Estores says.

Usually when you feel a cold coming on, your immune system jumps in and fights the virus. But too much stress cuts the number of cells that make up the front lines of defense. Stress also pumps up the level of cortisol in your body. This hormone zaps your immune system, and that makes you an easier target for a cold.

So do something that relaxes you: Listen to music, meditate, or do a light workout. And remember to rest, Estores says. Your body needs that, too.

Drink Up

When you have a stuffy head or nose, fluids are your friend. They’ll help unclog your nose and thin any mucus so you can cough or blow it out, says Jean Carstensen, MD, who teaches medicine and pediatrics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Keep a full glass close by. As long as it doesn’t have alcohol or caffeine in it, any drink will help keep you hydrated. But plain water is best, Carstensen says.

If you feel feverish, drink even more. A high temperature can dehydrate you as you sweat.

Sip Hot Tea and Honey

Drinking warm liquids helps to open up your stuffy nose and soothe a sore throat. Hot tea with a little bit of honey can hush a cough. But don’t give honey to children under 1 year old. If it contains bacteria called clostridium, it can cause botulism and make your little one very sick.

Act Fast

If you can’t hold off a cold, it’ll take 5-7 days for your symptoms to improve, Carstensen says.

To feel better until it fades, start with over-the-counter medications like antihistamines with decongestants. You can take pain medicine like ibuprofen and acetaminophen for aches and pains. 

Don’t give a child younger than 4 years any cough or cold medicine, due to safety risks in children that young. For older children, teens, or even adults, make sure you follow all dosing instructions on the label. 

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Irene M. Estores, MD, medical director, integrative medicine program, University of Florida Health.

Jean C. Carstensen, MD, clinical instructor of internal medicine and pediatrics, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: "Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others."

Cohen, S. Psychological Science, September 2003.

Harvard Health Publications: "Using the relaxation response to reduce stress."

Cohen, S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 2012.

Sanu, A. Rhinology, December 2008. “Infant Botulism.”

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