Headache. Stuffy nose. Cough. Fever. Itchy eyes. Sore throat. Muscle aches. If you’re like most people, you know the symptoms of the common cold all too well. Although Americans spend billions of dollars annually on doctor visits and cold remedies (everything from tissues and vitamin C to over-the-counter decongestants and herbal teas), there is no cure for the common cold. Fortunately, there are steps you can take and remedies for colds to make your recovery easier. In this article we’ll discuss all aspects of the cold, including home remedies, when you should call a doctor, and how to avoid passing on your cold to innocent bystanders. To begin, we will discuss the origins and causes of the common cold.
A cold is an upper respiratory infection caused by any one of hundreds of different viruses. Unfortunately, scientists haven’t figured out how to wipe out these viruses. The body has to rely on its own natural defenses.During a cold, virus particles penetrate the mucous layer of the nose and throat and attach themselves to cells there. The viruses punch holes in the cell membranes, allowing viral genetic material to enter the cells.
Within a short time, the virus takes over and forces the cells to produce thousands of new virus particles.In response to this viral invasion, the body marshals its defenses: The nose and throat release chemicals that spark the immune system; injured cells produce chemicals called prostaglandins, which trigger inflammation and attract infection-fighting white blood cells; tiny blood vessels stretch, opening up space to allow blood fluid (plasma) and specialized white cells to enter the infected area; the body temperature rises, enhancing the immune response; and histamine is released, increasing the production of nasal mucus in an effort to trap viral particles and remove them from the body.As the battle against the cold virus rages on, the body counterattacks with its heavy artillery: specialized white blood cells called monocytes and lymphocytes; interferon, often called the “body’s own antiviral drug”; and 20 or more proteins that circulate in the blood plasma and coat the viruses and infected cells, making it easier for the white blood cells to identify and destroy them.The symptoms you experience as a cold are actually the body’s natural immune response. In fact, by the time you feel like you’re coming down with a cold, you’ve likely already been infected for a day and a half.
Once you are infected, however, you can try to ease some of the aches and pains. In the next section, we will review some home remedies for relieving cold symptoms.
HOW COLDS ARE SPREAD
The cold virus can take many routes to its ultimate destination — your cells. Most people are contagious a day before and two to four days after their symptoms start. Here are the typical ways a cold virus is spread:
- Touching someone who has the virus (such as shaking hands) or something that contains the virus (such as touching a doorknob or grocery cart). The virus can live for three hours on skin and objects. Once the virus is passed to your skin, it’s a simple matter for it to be transported to your own mucus membranes — for example, when you rub your eye, eat finger foods, or touch your nose. That’s why it’s important to wash your hands thoroughly and frequently, especially before eating.
- Inhaling the virus through airborne transmission. It may sound implausible, but if someone sitting next to you sneezes while you are inhaling, voila! It’s likely you’ll get a cold.
One study found that kids tend to get colds from more direct contact, while adults tend to get colds from airborne viruses (moms of young children can expect to get colds both ways). Research has also found that emotional stress, allergies that affect the nasal passages or throat, and menstrual cycles may make you more susceptible to catching a cold.
Fluids help thin the mucus, thus keeping it flowing freely and making it easier for the body to expel.
1: Drink Fluids
Many people believe the old adage, “Do nothing and your cold will last seven days. Do everything and it will last a week.” (Actually, it’s not uncommon for a cold to last a couple of weeks.) And, basically, it’s true. But the following simple home remedies may help you feel more comfortable and help your body heal itself as quickly as possible, such as drinking plenty of fluids.
Fluids may help thin the mucus, thus keeping it flowing freely and making it easier for the body to expel, along with the viral particles trapped within it. Water and other liquids also combat dehydration. So drink at least eight ounces of fluid every two hours.
Doctors disagree about whether or not you should take a day or two off from work when you come down with a cold. However, they do agree that extra rest helps. Staying away from work may be a good idea from a prevention standpoint, too; your coworkers will probably appreciate your not spreading your cold virus around the office. If you do decide to stay home, forego those chores and take it easy, read a good book, watch television, take naps.
You should probably also skip your normal exercise routine when you’ve got a cold, at least during the days when you’re feeling the worst. Again, let your body be your guide. If you’re feeling miserable, the best advice is probably to just stay in bed.
And while cold air doesn’t cause colds, you’re likely to feel more comfortable if you stay indoors and keep covered, especially if you have a fever. There’s no sense in stressing your body any further.
3: Chicken Soup
Science actually backs up what your mom knew all along — chicken soup does help a cold. It’s one of the most beneficial hot fluids you can consume when you have a cold. Scientists believe it’s the fumes in the soup that release the mucus in your nose and help your body better fight against its viral invaders. Chicken soup also contains cysteines, which are good at thinning mucus. And the soup provides easily absorbed nutrients.
Make your own cough syrup by mixing together 1/4 cup honey and 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar. Pour the mixture into a jar or bottle and seal tightly. Shake well before using. Take 1 tablespoon every four hours.
However, stay away from honey in “hot toddies.” While a hot alcoholic beverage might sound good when you’re feeling achy and stuffy, you’re better off abstaining from booze, which increases mucous-membrane congestion and is dehydrating.
The inflammation and swelling in the nose during a cold is caused by molecules called cytokines, or lymphokines, which are made by the body as it fights the infection. Research has shown that washing away these molecules can reduce swelling. You can make your own saline drops or spray by adding 1/4 teaspoon salt to 8 ounces water. Fill a clean nasal-spray bottle or dropper with the salt water and spray or drop into each nostril three or four times. Repeat five to six times daily.
You can also make a saltwater gargle for your sore throat with the same ratio of salt to water. Salt is an astringent and helps relieve a painful throat.
A cup of hot tea with honey does the same trick as chicken soup; it loosens up your nasal passages and makes that stuffy nose feel better. Folk healers have known this secret for centuries. They often suggest drinking tea with spices and herbs that contain aromatic oils with antiviral properties. Try tea with elder, ginger, yarrow, mint, thyme, horsemint, bee balm, lemon balm, catnip, garlic, onions or mustard.
Hot and spicy foods are notorious for making your nose run and your eyes water. The hot stuff in peppers is called capsaicin and is pharmacologically similar to guaifenesin, an expectorant found in some over-the-counter cough syrups. This similarity leads some experts to believe that eating hot foods can clear up mucus and ease that stuffy nose.
8: Vaporize and Moisturize
The steam from a vaporizer can loosen mucus, especially if the mucus has become thick. (You can get a similar effect by draping a towel over your head and bending over a pot of boiled water; just be careful not to burn yourself.)
A humidifier will add moisture to your immediate environment, which may make you feel more comfortable and will keep your nasal tissues moist. That’s helpful because dry nasal membranes provide poor protection against viral invasion.
Dry nasal passages are prime breeding grounds for the cold virus. Although doctors typically recommend saline nose drops during the winter to keep nasal passages moist, a recent study compared saline drops to sesame oil. The people who used sesame oil had an 80 percent improvement in their nasal dryness while the people who used traditional saline drops had a 30 percent improvement. While it may not be a good idea to shoot sesame oil up your nose (it could get into the lungs), try rubbing a drop around the inside of your nostrils.
9: Vitamin C
Vitamin C won’t prevent a cold, but it may help once you have a cold. Although it remains a controversial idea, some research suggests that vitamin C can help boost the immune system and reduce the length and severity of symptoms. But to reap the benefits, you’ve got to take a lot of “C.” The RDA for men and women age 15 and older is 60 mg, but studies show that you’d need to take upward of 1,000 mg to 3,000 mg to get the cold-symptom-sparing rewards of vitamin C. For the short term, experts believe that wouldn’t be harmful, but taking too much vitamin C for too long can cause severe diarrhea. Before loading up on vitamin C, check with your doctor.
Studies have found that zinc may help immune cells fight a cold and may ease cold symptoms. The most effective zinc lozenges are those that contain 15 to 25 mg of zinc gluconate or zinc gluconate-glycine per lozenge. You can get the most out of your zinc lozenges if you start using them at the first sign of a cold and continue taking them for several days.
While colds are here to stay — for now — you don’t have to be totally at their mercy. Thankfully, there are some safe home remedies like these to ease your symptoms once you’re sick.
Originally published on How Stuff Works