Sorry to be the bearer of bad news buuuut….the typical adult averages two to three colds a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). And whether you’ve already topped that number or you’ve somehow stayed congestion-free this season (teach me your ways!), you’d probably try pretty much anything that promises to stop a cold in its tracks. But is it really possible to get rid of a cold super quickly, like overnight? Or within 24 hours? Or even within a few days? Haaalp!
The short answer: You can’t do anything fancy to get rid of a cold once symptoms have hit.
Once a cold virus enters your system, nothing will truly prevent it from running its course. So-called cold fighters such as vitamin C and herbs like garlic just aren’t supported by science, says Holly Phillips, MD, a women’s health specialist in New York City.
For example, vitamin C is obviously healthy and a known immune system protector, but if you’re waiting to take a supp until you actually feel sick, it’s too late to help out with that particular illness. “For vitamin C to be most effective, you have to take it every day,” Kathleen Dass, MD, an allergist and immunologist, previously told WH.
Giving yourself a vitamin boost, preferably through foods, works better when you’re doing it ’round the clock as a preventive method (more on that in a sec). One note: There is some evidence that suggests taking zinc at the very start of a cold (like within the first couple of days of noticing symptoms) may trim the length, but the research isn’t yet conclusive. But it might be worth giving it a shot until experts understand zinc’s effect on a cold better. “If I feel a sore throat, I keep zinc lozenges handy,” says Keri Peterson, MD, WH advisory board member.
OTC meds can ease symptoms and make you feel better while they’re in your system. “I will use saline sinus rinse to cleanse my nasal passages and sinus cavities,” Dr. Peterson says. “The irrigation flushes out germs and mucous.” Of course, she notes that they’re not a cure for the congestion, runny nose, and body aches that confine you to the couch for three to 10 days, surrounded by tissues and comforted by a Real Housewives marathon.
Instead, practice these lifestyle habits to stop a cold *before* it starts.
Ding, ding ding—focusing on prevention is a smart way to approach cold and flu season. If you can keep your immune system strong, you’ll be more likely to fight off a cold virus invasion, says Dr. Phillips. Here’s how.
1. Score quality sleep.
We know, easier said than done. But the fact is, inadequate sleep makes a dent in your immune system. “The exact mechanism of how sleep deprivation does this isn’t entirely clear,” says Dr. Phillips, “but some studies have shown that it derails T-cell functioning and increases inflammatory cytokines, both of which lessen our ability to fight colds and the flu.”
2. Load up on plant food.
Fruits, veggies, and whole grains pack high quantities of antioxidants, which are critical for cell repair and give your immune system a lift, says Dr. Phillips. “They minimize stress on the immune system so it can better fight off infections.” (Bring this list of antioxidant-rich foods with you next time you go grocery shopping.)
3. Don’t touch your eyes, mouth, or nose.
These are direct entry points for germs, Dr. Peterson says, and respiratory droplets travel rapidly and when you cough or sneeze. “I am very aware of my environment and surroundings,” she says. “If someone is coughing nearby without covering his or her mouth, I will try to move or use a scarf to cover my nose.”
So avoid touching your face, and others’ faces. (Tryna be cute with your S.O. when they’re coughing? Don’t.) “Most adults touch their face about 16 times a day, and children do a lot more often, increasing the spread of germs,” Dr. Peterson adds. A few other bad habits: Eating with your hands or picking at your lips or teeth. Oh, and don’t shake hands with people if you’re sick.
4. Stress less.
You’ve heard it a million times, but it’s important, so it bears repeating. “Like sleep deprivation, long-term stress releases a cascade of stress hormones into your system, which ultimately lowers production of white blood cells, which are critical for fending off infections,” says Dr. Phillips.
5. Stay hydrated.
We’re talking hot soup, tea, and other steamy liquids, which help loosen mucus and make a sore throat feel better. Even room-temperature liquid can work. “Adequate hydration helps the body fight infection,” says Dr. Phillips.
6. Wash. Your. Hands.
Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it time and again—but it’s *the* most crucial cold prevention advice you’ll hear. “The most important measure for preventing colds and flu is frequent hand washing,” Dr. Peterson says. “Rubbing the hands with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds helps to slough germs off the skin.
Teach your children to wash their hands as well, too. (You might even have to watch them do it to hold them accountable.)
7. Stay armed with wipes and sanitizer.
Clean areas that see lots of touching around your house and work spaces (open offices, ick!). “I wipe down high-traffic areas in my office weekly with sanitizing wipes,” Dr. Peterson says. “This includes my mouse, keyboard, pens, stethoscope, equipment handles, phone, drawer handles, and doorknobs.”At home, pay special attention to cleaning TV remotes, your children’s toys, and kitchen countertops.
The gym is another huge culprit for spreading germs, Dr. Peterson adds. “People constantly touch equipment, and the moist sweat is a perfect environment for germs to grow.” As I’m suuuuure you know, many gyms now have wipes in dispensers throughout the gym. But if not, consider bringing your own to protect yourself.
And you should always keep hand sanitizer in your purse and gym bag, she notes. “Be sure to use at least a dime-sized dollop and rub it briskly all over your hands for 30 seconds,” Dr. Peterson explains. “If the hand sanitizer dries before 30 seconds you have not used enough of it to be effective.”
8. Get the flu shot.
“The flu vaccine is your first line of defense and will reduce the likelihood that you get the flu by 70 to 90 percent,” Dr. Peterson says. You can get it as early as end of August in some health centers—and the sooner you protect yourself the better.