Your head throbs, your nose runs, and you’re coughing. While the common cold isn’t usually serious, it’s nothing to sneeze at either. Cold symptoms can make the average adult miserable for about a week. In the elderly and children, a cold can hang on even longer.
So are there any cold remedies that can shorten cold duration? The answer is yes, according to Donald W. Novey, MD, a family and integrative medicine specialist in Poulsbo, Wash., but they may not be what you think.
While some dietary supplements may be able to shorten cold duration, Dr. Novey says supplements aren’t your best line of defense. “The best weapon we have against the common cold is our own immune system,” he explains.
Good nutrition, adequate sleep and exercise, and low levels of stress are what make our immune system work its best. “A failure on any one of these four points can weaken the immune system and either prolong an existing cold or lead to more frequent ones,” Novey says.
Rev Up Your Immune System to Shorten Cold Duration
In the United States, adults can expect to catch the common cold as many as four times a year, while children get anywhere from 6 to 10 colds. Novey says that generally viruses need to run their course, but we can help that course be as short as possible by taking care of our immune system. Here’s how:
Get your zzz’s. “When someone gets a cold, by far the most effective remedy is rest,” Novey says. “People who are exhausted stay sicker longer, he explains. “The body signals its need for rest by being tired. We have all experienced the fatigue of a common cold and the wish to rest. If only we would listen!”
Work out. “Exercise strengthens the immune system,” Novey says. In fact, a recent study suggests that people who exercise on a regular basis may have fewer and milder colds. Researchers in North Carolina followed just over 1,000 men and women ages 18 to 85 in the fall and winter and recorded how many upper respiratory infections they caught. The participants reported how much aerobic exercise they did and also answered questions about lifestyle, nutrition, and stress. Those who exercised five or more days a week reported 46 percent fewer colds than their sedentary counterparts — those who exercised only one day or less a week — and the number of days they slogged through cold symptoms was 41 percent lower. The researchers said one explanation could be that working out causes immune cells to attack viruses at a faster rate.
Eat right. “When one is well, a balanced diet with adequate protein promotes well-being and reduces the chance for catching a cold,” Novey says. If you do get a cold, listen to what your stomach is telling you. “The body dictates what it wants: soup, liquids — gentle foods,” he notes, adding that ginger tea and the old standby, chicken soup, are cold remedies that provide temporary relief.
De-stress. Novey says the kind of stress that “wears you down” also lowers your resistance to illnesses such as the common cold and may make one hang on longer. Finding a healthy way to cope with chronic stress can help fight off all kinds of illnesses. Relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation may be worth a try.
Try zinc tablets. Zinc, which helps boost the immune system, can help shorten the duration of the common cold by up to 40 percent, according to a study published in the Open Respiratory Medicine Journal. Zinc lozenges are easiest to use while you have a cold, and are available at most drugstores. Zinc supplements could help keep your immune system strong while you’re healthy and potentially stave off more colds.