So you got sick. You eyed that fellow bus rider coughing into the open. You winced as your co-worker sneezed beside you in a meeting. You sank a little bit as your preschooler came home, nose oozing, and stuck his fingers in your face. It seemed only a matter of time before you faced that familiar enemy – the common cold.
For this round with the cold, don't drop your gloves and resign to days of coughing, sneezing, aching and nose-dripping. Fight back! The tips below – many of them old fashioned and cheap, if not free – will help you manage those symptoms while the cold runs its course. Wendy Bennett, internist at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, calls this "symptom management." The actions below are "not going to decrease the amount of time that you're sick," she says, "but overall, they'll make you feel better and more functional to do the things you want to do."
Here's your battle plan, with advice from Bennett and William Schaffner, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn.:
Hydrate. We might as well scream this tip from the rooftops. "Drink plenty of fluids" is likely the advice every parental figure has drowned you in since you were a wee, sniffling cold sufferer. And yes, the long-standing guidance to hydrate holds water (sorry) – in fact, it's the first tip both Schaffner and Bennett suggest.
"If you're drinking water and aim for a tall glass every couple hours, I'd say that's probably good," Bennett says. In addition to water, go for teas and broths. And of course, nothing can undo your hydration efforts quite like coffee and alcohol. Avoid these dehydrating beverages while you're sick, or at least cut back on your intake.
Take a hot shower. Stuffed up? Draw a hot, steamy shower. And we're talking steamy, not sexy – especially if you take Schaffner's suggestion: "As you're in the shower, and the moist air gets into your sinuses, gently blow your nose one nostril at a time," he says. You can also "gather a handful of shower water and put it up your nose and kind of snuffle it up through your nose, and it'll help open up your sinus passages and promote drainage," he says.
An abbreviated option if you're congested and don't feel like jumping in the shower: Run the hot water in the sink spigot and lean over it with a towel draped over your head. Breathe in that hot, moist air.
Add an extra pillow. Here's another tip for folks feeling like the bulk of their body weight has gravitated to their sinuses. Instead of lying awake in bed because you just – can't – breathe – add an extra pillow to raise your head higher. "This promotes sinus drainage down the back of your throat and will open up your nasal passages a little bit," says Shaffner, who is also the past president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
Try over-the-counter medicines. Remember, we're talking symptom management. So while those products on drugstore shelves won't shorten the length of your cold or kill the virus, they'll likely help nullify the symptoms. Cough and cold medications can bring some relief, Bennett says, adding that antihistamines may help watery-eyed, sneezing cold sufferers, and saline nasal solutions may help folks with dry noses. Ibuprofen and acetaminophen may help subdue body aches and slight fevers.
Drink hot tea. Not only is sipping on tea a tasty way to hydrate, but it can bring some calming relief to a scratchy throat, Bennett says. Plus, she points out, there's something therapeutic about drinking tea. "I think one of the reasons a cup of tea makes you feel good is because it's a hot drink, and you have to drink it slowly," she says. "You have to take a few deep breaths, and you have to be mindful of how you're feeling and your environment."
Gargle salt water. A slightly less delicious way to relieve a sore throat: Gargle a mixture of warm water and salt.
Eat chicken noodle soup. How would something so classic not make the list? Chicken noodle soup offers that much-coveted hydration, Schaffner says, "and it offers some nice, gentle, easily digestible nourishment."