It’s that time again. The season of sharing and giving... colds, that is. Yes, just when you thought it was safe at work, Jill from accounting decides she’s not wasting one of her precious sick days and proceeds to sneeze on your croissant. Inconsiderate? Just a bit. And while everyone and their grandmother swears by some combination of foods (apparently that only someone’s mother can make), we’ve dug through the research to determine what actually works to help get over a cold fast.
1. Wash Your Damn Hands
First of all, this is a no-brainer. If your mom skipped this lesson and went straight to ginger ale and soup, she may have missed the mark. If you’re not feeling well, stay home from work, don’t touch your face, and for the love of all things holy, wash your hands. And wash them a lot! No, that doesn’t mean a quick slap under the running water. You need to lather up and rub your hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds before rinsing. Sing "Happy Birthday" if it helps, just don’t be gross.
And if you’re already sick, do everyone around you a favor by sneezing or coughing into your sleeve (not your hand) and disinfecting any surfaces you’ve touched regularly after use.
2. Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is good for you, we all know that. And research confirms it may be one of the most important things you do to protect yourself this cold and flu season. Think a solid six hours is enough? Think again. One study found that adults who slept between five to six hours a night were four times more likely to catch a cold than people who slept at least seven hours. As the temperature drops and the sun sets earlier, head to bed early to stay feeling your best.
3. Chill Out
There’s no denying the powerful connection between the body and mind, so the impact of stress on immune function is no surprise. One study found that people who reported feeling stressed out were twice as likely as others to get a cold.
It appears that the infamous stress hormone, cortisol, may be to blame. When chronically stressed, the immune system becomes less sensitive to cortisol, increasing the body’s natural inflammatory response to viruses.
The good news is there’s something we can do about it that won’t cost you $200 an hour in therapy fees, responding to, “How does that make you feel?” One 2012 study found that people enrolled in a mindfulness meditation program had shorter and less severe colds and infections, and lost fewer work days than those in the control group. We suggest finding a daily routine that you can stick to that helps you relax, whether it’s deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, yoga, or something else unique to your mind.
4. Break a Sweat
Exercising may seem like the last thing you’re interested in when you’ve got questionable fluids pouring out of every orifice, but staying active may be the key to quelling that cold. Studies have found that regular moderate-intensity exercise has immune-boosting benefits and may cut the risk of catching a cold in half! Whether you enjoy biking, walking, strength training, or yoga, aim to get in at least 30 minutes of activity every day to keep that immune system strong.
5. Take a Decongestant (If You Have To)
You’ve been moving, sleeping, and practicing hella good hygiene, but sometimes you just need a wee pharmaceutical boost. One 2016 review found that nasal decongestants may have a beneficial but small effect on congestion in adults with the common cold. So while we can’t say it will cure your cold (it probably won’t), it may give you a little boost to get you through. If you do take them, make sure you increase your water intake since they can be dehydrating.
What Foods (and Drinks) Actually Help?
So you’ve got those five lifestyle strategies in your back pocket, and are looking to up your cold-fighting game this year, can eating certain foods actually help? Let’s take a look.
Should you call the water boy and up the H2O?
Staying hydrated seems to be a legitimate recommendation in nearly any scenario, but scientists aren’t sure drinking more actually helps. Scientists in Australia looked at whether or not getting extra fluids reduced the severity of an infection, and while they couldn’t refute the importance of adequate hydration, they weren’t able to find any conclusive evidence that drinking more improved outcomes.
Our thoughts? Listen to your body and watch out for those signs of dehydration like bright yellow urine, thirst, or dry lips. By that time you should definitely know it’s time to up the H2O.
Should you ask Mom for chicken soup?
We're pretty sure this one started so that a mother could feel needed again by her 30-year old son. Regardless, slurping up a bowl of warm comforting soup may have some mild benefit.
Most cold symptoms are related to an inflammatory response like cytokine release and the generation of white blood cells called neutrophils. When neutrophils are released, it tends to increase mucous production, which is why so many of our colds come along with phlegmy coughs and a runny nose. Mm, delish. While the research on humans is still lacking, researchers from Nebraska Medical Center found that chicken soup (made with a variety of antioxidant-rich veggies, chicken, and broth) was able to inhibit neutrophil movement, suggesting that soup may promote some mild anti-inflammatory activity.
While we still need more high-quality human studies to confirm these findings, if a bowl of Mom’s finest makes you feel loved and taken care of, then, by all means, call her up.
Does a spoon of honey a day keep the doctor away?
Hey, we’ll take any reason to eat honey right out of a jar, but will it actually help kill this cold? One 2007 study compared honey, a pharmaceutical-grade cough suppressant, and a placebo in helping relieve children’s upper respiratory tract infections. The result? The parents rated the honey as the best of the bunch!
Another large 2014 systematic review concluded that while honey seemed to be better than no treatment for relieving a pesky cough, there wasn’t strong enough evidence for or against its regular use. We say there isn’t a whole lot of harm in stirring a little honey in your tea or on your toast, so if you enjoy the flavor, sweeten up your day.
Should you eat the rainbow each meal?
OK, so you knew that a dietitian wasn’t going to get through an entire article on anything without waxing poetic about vegetables. Vegetables are packed with powerful antioxidants like vitamin C, which is most prominently known for its role in boosting immune function.
Unfortunately, the evidence doesn’t suggest that if you swallow a handful of pills, you’ll wake up instantly cured. One large 2013 systematic review found that while regular supplementation of vitamin C didn’t seem to reduce the incidence of colds in the general population, it may help reduce its duration or severity. It also appears to be most useful for athletes who are exposed to brief periods of severe physical stress and exercise.
Our tip? Since the research is still a bit vague, save the money from supplements, and aim to pack your diet with a colorful range of antioxidant-rich produce instead. The best sources of vitamin C include citrus fruit, dark leafy greens, berries, tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, and papaya, so fill up.
Is ginseng the ancient cure?
Ginseng has been used to boost immunity and prevent disease in Eastern medicine for thousands of years, but is there any research to back it up? One large meta-analysis using North American-grown ginseng found that it reduced the incidence of a cold by 25 percent, and it shortened the duration by about six days. Having said that, the researchers weren’t convinced there was enough high-quality evidence to make solid recommendations.
We say there’s no need to go out of your way while sick, but if you like its bitter flavor, try brewing a cup of ginseng tea before bed, steeping ginseng root in your soup, or mixing a spoonful of ginseng root powder into your oatmeal or yogurt.
Should you be popping zinc?
If you start reading the back of your cough lozenges, you might see zinc pop up more often than not. Zinc’s job is to slow our immune response, control inflammation, and assist in healing pesky wounds, so it makes sense that it’s often been touted as a natural cold and flu aid.
One study on otherwise healthy children found that cold occurrence was significantly reduced in the group who were given zinc supplements. It also reduced the sick days from 1.3 to 0.9 days per child. These findings were echoed by another recent study and meta-analysis.
While the research to date has been done on supplements, if you want to up your intake naturally, reach for more oysters, crab, lean meats, poultry, pulses, dairy, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Is Grandma's echinacea the best remedy?
We don’t know about you, but we were force-fed echinacea every cold and flu season as kids, and apparently, it was unnecessary torture. One 2010 randomized control trial found that compared with a placebo, echinacea didn’t seem to reduce the duration or severity of a cold. Another 2006 review looked at a wide range of echinacea preparations and concurred that none of them showed any consistent promise over the placebo.
We say you can probably skip these pricey supplements and focus your time (and money) on eating real food.
Is the sunshine vitamin the key to a less gloomy day?
We’re just scratching the surface when it comes to understanding all of the ways vitamin D may benefit our bodies, so it’s not surprising that so many people promote its use for cold and flu season too.
One promising study found that children who were given 1200 IU of vitamin D were 40 percent less likely to get a common flu virus than kids who didn’t. Another survey found that adults with low levels of vitamin D were more likely to report getting a cough, cold, or upper respiratory tract infection than adults with healthy levels.
It seems that vitamin D may help immune cells identify and destroy the bacteria and viruses that can sometimes make us sick. To up your intake, look for fortified dairy or alternatives, egg yolks, and fatty fish, and ask your doctor about taking a supplement.
Can good bacteria protect us?
Like vitamin D, scientists are constantly digging deeper to understand the workings of those itty bitty bacteria in our belly, and with time, we may see some more immune-boosting benefits emerge.
In one randomized control trial, administering a fermented probiotic drink to children in daycare reduced the incidence of common infectious diseases compared with the placebo. Another trial on hospitalized children found that the probiotic drink reduced the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections, diarrhea, and vomiting. These findings were echoed in a larger 2015 analysis of the research, suggesting that while research is still in its infancy and may have limitations, probiotics may play a role in helping prevent the common cold.
Should you swap your coffee for green tea?
A 2007 study conducted in healthy adults aimed to find out whether camellia sinensis, a component in green tea, reduced the incidence of cold and flu. The results from the study indicated that among subjects taking the key tea component, there were 32.1 percent fewer cold symptoms, 22.9 percent fewer confirmed illnesses, and 35.6 percent fewer symptom days compared with subjects in the placebo group.
While we still need more research in this area, if you like the bitter tannic bite of green tea, it’s an antioxidant-rich way to get your caffeine fix.
Can garlic keep vampires and colds away?
Garlic may not be date-night friendly, but neither is coughing up a lung. One 2012 randomized control trial found that while garlic supplements didn’t seem to reduce the incidence of cold and flu, in some cases it did seem to reduce the severity and duration. Another review of the body of research concluded that while certain studies show some impact, there just isn’t enough evidence to suggest garlic is a surefire cure.
So go ahead, throw a few extra cloves in your Caesar dressing or your favorite pasta sauce, but it may be more likely to get rid of your date than your cold.
So the jury is still out on a number of edible cures, but feeling well is about much more than just the absence of disease. To get on track to feeling your best, get your rest, move often, wash your hands, reduce stress, and of course, eat in a way that feels good to you.