9 Clear Signs a Cold Is Coming (and How to Stop It)

Updated: Oct. 11, 2022

If you pay attention to the subtle signals your body is sending, you can actually help stave off a cold before it sets in. Here's how to nip the pesky pre-cold symptoms in the bud to stay healthy all winter long.

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That “uh-oh” feeling

Not everyone gets that low-energy, run-down sensation just before the sniffles, sneezes, and coughs take over your life. If you’re unsure that what you’re experiencing is the onset of a cold, this guide is for you.

African American woman sleeping in her bed.

Get lots of sleep when you start feeling tired

We’re generally wired to try to push through any minor physical symptoms, but that’s our first mistake because we should really be listening to our bodies to recognize the early signs of a cold. You know that super tired feeling you sometimes get that makes you want to sleep for days? It could signal that your immune system is weakening, so hit the sheets and make sure to get a full night’s sleep. Whether you’re extra sleepy or not, it pays to catch quality sleep. A study led by researchers at the University of California San Francisco found that people who got fewer than six hours of sleep a night were four times more likely to catch a cold than those who slept more than seven hours a night. Check out 50 more ways to avoid catching a cold this season.

Woman in bed reaching for a glass on water on her nightstand.

Drink lots of fluids to open up a stuffy nose

When you realize you can’t breathe through your nose easily, your nasal passages might need some moisture to keep cold germs from settling in. “Colds are minor upper respiratory illnesses, and the symptoms usually first start in the nose,” says Evangeline Lausier, MD, an assistant clinical professor at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, NC. “The cold virus attacks these nasal areas, and the body fights back by secreting more mucus to mechanically flush out the virus.” You can help your body beat these early signs of a cold along by hydrating, which will keep your mucus thin and easy to pass, and your mucous membranes moist, Dr. Lausier says.

Man at his desk at home looking stressed as he reviews paperwork.

Reduce stress if you’re feeling run down

If that big project at work is leaving you depleted at the end of the day, you could be headed for a cold. Doctors are still trying to understand the connection between stress and sickness, but one thing is clear: Chronic stress is not good for the immune system. In a landmark study in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that people who were more stressed were more likely to get sick. Newer research has shown that it’s not actually the increase in stress hormones that causes you to fall ill—but rather that your body is so used to the increased levels that it can’t use them to fight off viruses. So if you’re feeling worn out, try to catch a relaxing break.

Wooden spoon spilling over with sea salt.

Gargle with salt water for a scratchy throat

It seems counterintuitive—doesn’t pouring salt on a wound make things worse? But actually, the rinse reduces inflammation. “Gargling helps reduce swelling and mucus collection in the back of the throat and nasal passages, where the cough receptors are,” Dr. Lausier explains, which prevents you from hacking. The Mayo Clinic advises adding 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt to an eight-ounce glass of warm water. Just don’t swallow it! Here are more natural remedies for colds.

Vaporizer emitting steam.

Take a hot shower to ease congestion

If you’re starting to blow your nose more often than usual, it might be one of the early signs of a cold—although Dr. Lausier says it can be hard to tell seasonal allergy symptoms from a cold. In either case, a hot shower can work wonders. Other safe ways to relieve nasal symptoms include using a saline spray or a neti pot. These make “mucus thinner, especially if you use an irrigation spray bottle or neti pot to move that mucus,” Dr. Lausier says. “The salt—and steam—also can help shrink swollen membranes so you can breathe easier.” Humidifiers are another way to help mucus move along, especially as the air outside gets drier. “During a cold, dry air can make membranes and mucus dry out quickly, so using a humidifier is good at the onset of colds,” Dr. Lausier says.

Bowl of chicken soup.

Eat chicken soup for sinus pressure

When you’re starting to get a cold, you may feel like your face itself hurts! Watery, tired eyes, pressure in your cheeks, and even a headache could signal that a virus is taking hold in your sinuses. One homemade remedy that’s been around since ancient times is chicken soup—but does it really work? “I think chicken soup is great for hydration—hot liquids, salt, and electrolytes,” Dr. Lausier says. “What goes in it can also provide healing properties: Onions and garlic can reduce the viscosity of mucus and help prevent or lessen congestion.” Science backs up chicken soup’s anti-inflammatory properties. A now-famous study from the University of Nebraska tested how certain white blood cells, which fight off infection, reacted to chicken soup and concluded that the soup actually did have a positive effect. Dr. Lausier says that other cold-fighting foods include raw garlic, ginger, and chili peppers, a natural decongestant. Check out these other foods that will boost your immune system.

Woman doing abdominal crunches on an exercise ball in her living room

Do light exercise for chest congestion

Although your body clearly needs rest and the proper amount of sleep, Dr. Lausier says an “excellent” way to boost your immune system is with a bit of light exercise. It’s not a surprise that regular exercise can help keep you healthy—one older study from the University of Washington in Seattle showed that women who exercised regularly had fewer colds than those that didn’t. Stick to walking or other light tasks that keep your heart rate under 100 beats per minute, and stay hydrated. Just make sure you steer clear of these ways you’re making your cold worse.

Woman in bed with her head propped up on pillows.

Prop yourself up with pillows for a cough

When you’re getting a cold, you should rest up—but, ironically, lying flat on your back isn’t good for you either. Gravity can cause the congestion in your nasal passages to drip down your throat, making it sore and causing a cough. Coughing while lying flat isn’t very comfortable, and it can keep you awake. Instead, try propping yourself up to “reduce the cough receptor irritation in the back of the throat that causes cough,” Dr. Lausier says. This also can help move that mucus along and make it easier to breathe.

Vitamins and herbs.
iStock/Elena Elisseeva

Try vitamins and herbs for that “unwell” feeling

You know when you just feel off? At the slightest twinge of being not quite right, try the herb echinacea. “The evidence around use of echinacea is mixed, but it may shorten the duration and severity of a cold if taken at the first sign and used for two to three days,” Dr. Lausier says. Zinc is a supplement that may help, potentially shortening the length of cold symptoms. Also, make sure you’re not vitamin D deficient: A meta-analysis of 25 randomized controlled trials published in 2017 published in the journal BMJ found that vitamin D supplementation can help protect against acute respiratory infections. And what about good old vitamin C? “Data on vitamin C is mixed, but it may reduce the illness by a day or so,” she says, though it’s not generally effective for prevention. Check with your doctor before starting a vitamin or herb regimen. Next, look out for these signs your cold is actually a more serious illness.