A tickle in your throat. A cloudy head. An achy body. Yep, you’re coming down with something. Again. The average adult gets three colds per year, each lasting an average of nine days, says Jane Sadler, MD, a family practice physician at Baylor-Garland Hospital in Garland, Texas. But you don’t have to surrender. Here’s how to stop a cold before it takes hold—and feel better by tomorrow.
As soon as you feel symptoms
Start drinking water or juice
Staying hydrated cuts down on symptoms like a sore throat and stuffy nose, says William Schaffner, MD, professor and chair of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Gargle with salt water
To combat a scratchy throat add half a teaspoon of salt to a glass of warm water. “The salt draws out excess water in your throat’s tissues, reducing the inflammation, and clears mucous and irritants from the back of the throat,” notes Philip Hagen, MD, medical editor in chief of Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies. The rinse also flushes out bacteria and viruses, which may help whether you’re getting a cold or want to prevent one in the first place.
Keep your nose clean
Using a saline nasal spray right after cold symptoms first appear may reduce their impact, studies suggest. And take a hot shower: “Warm moisture helps clear nasal passages,” Dr. Schaffner says.
Head to the drugstore
Grab a pain reliever like acetaminophen to fight off achiness. Over-the-counter allergy meds, like Zyrtec and Benadryl, help with symptoms like runny nose and watery eyes; allergy meds that contain decongestants, like Claritin D or Alavert D, will help clear your sinuses and keep you alert, if you need to be, says Mark Moyad, MD, MPH, Jenkins/Pokempner director of preventive and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center.
Skip the OTC cough medicine
Good old honey works just as well (and tastes better!), says Harley Rotbart, MD, professor and vice chairman of pediatrics and pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Have one to two tablespoons straight from the jar or stirred into tea. And forget zinc lozenges and sprays: There’s just not conclusive proof that they work, Dr. Rotbart notes.
Over the next six hours
Skip work if you can
Your body can fight off the virus better if you’re well-rested. But if you have to go in, it’s not the end of the world, says Janet O’Mahony, MD, an internal medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. Just steer clear of co-workers as best you can—the first few days of a cold is when you’re most contagious. To keep from sharing your germs, wash your hands regularly or use an alcohol-based disinfectant gel.
Don’t forget the fluids
Keep drinking plenty of water, juice, or tea—and have some chicken soup for lunch. Grandma’s favorite cure-all really does ease cold symptoms, research suggests.
Shake it off
If you’re up for a little activity, “light exercise can actually boost the immune system,” Dr. Sadler says. But we mean light: Keep your heart rate just under 100.
At the end of the day
Last chance for germ-fighting!
A healthy diet can help fuel the immune system, so choose a dinner that includes protein-packed foods like lean meat, fish, or beans, with a whole-grain side like brown rice and plenty of antioxidant-rich vegetables. Take a hot shower before bed if you’re still feeling stuffy. Then get a good night’s sleep.
The next day
If you feel worse or have a fever, start vomiting, or develop an increasingly bad headache, call your doctor—these are signs you’ve got something other than the common cold (such as flu or an infection), and you may need antiviral medication, antibiotics, or other treatment. Otherwise, keep up the routine for the next few days, just to be sure you kick that cold for good.