7 Things Doctors and Nurses Do to Stop a Cold in Its Tracks

Updated: Oct. 11, 2022

Feeling the telltale signs of a cold coming on? Make like a medical pro and rev your body's defenses.

They give stress the boot

Your state of mind affects your health, so it’s no surprise that research shows being stressed out can downshift your immunity, according to research published in the journal Health Psychology, making it difficult for your body to fight off a cold. In this study from Ohio State University, researchers found that during exam period, college students produced fewer natural killer cells, which fight viral infections; they nearly ceased production of immunity-boosting gamma interferon; and their infection-fighting T-cells responded only weakly to test-tube stimulation. What’s more, when you’re under pressure, you’re more likely to adopt unhealthy coping behaviors—such as drinking too much coffee or eating junk food—that may further lower your immunity. When you feel a cold coming on, your immune system kicks into high gear to fight it, but stress hinders that process. To counter the effects of stress, doctors try to grab as much shut-eye as they can and try other strategies like running, listening to music, meditating or these 15 other instant stress relievers.

bottle and box of Tylenol pain reliever

They head off symptoms

As soon as you notice one of these clear signs a cold is coming on, head to the drugstore for some over-the-counter relief. To help with aches and soreness, take a pain reliever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. To clear your sinuses and ease symptoms such as a runny nose and watery eyes, look for decongestants, which will shrink swollen blood vessels and nasal tissue so you can breathe. Or combine the two in a product like Extra-Strength Tylenol Sinus or Advil Cold and Sinus. If you tend to get side effects from decongestants—trouble sleeping, feeling jittery—try a nasal spray such as Afrin, but use it for no more than three days to prevent dependency. Note, over-the counters are all optional and cover treatments but these do not help with quicker recovery. And it’s often recommended to let a fever ride than to take medications.

woman with scarf gargling with glass of salt water in hand

They gargle with saltwater

If you feel your throat starting to get scratchy, head straight to the pantry and grab the salt. Dissolve 1⁄4 teaspoon salt in 1 cup warm—the hottest you can comfortably handle, says Ashley Wood, RN, a nurse in Atlanta and contributor at Demystifying Your Health. “Some people add a drop of mouthwash to their saltwater mixture—ingredients like menthol and methyl salicylate provide pain relief, thymol provides antibacterial proprieties and eucalyptol reduces inflammation. If you’re going to use mouthwash, the key thing to remember is to only use a small amount because they often contain some level of alcohol in them and this can actually irritate your throat if you put too much in your gargle mixture.” You can also try one of these other natural cold remedies that actually work.

wooden spoon with pills surrounded by lemon and oysters

They consider zinc

Taking zinc the second you feel a cold could make a big difference. According to the National Institutes of Health, research suggests that oral zinc (lozenges, tablets, syrup) helps to shorten the length of colds when taken within 24 hours after symptoms start. And there’s some evidence that it can reduce the severity of colds as well. It’s not without possible side effects, though, including nausea and other GI symptoms. Also steer clear of the zinc nasal spray as well as intranasal gels or swabs, as they’ve been linked to possible loss of the sense of smell (known as anosmia).

filet of white fish on top of vegetables

They eat well

A healthy diet gives your body optimal fuel for all its functions, including fighting off colds, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Make sure to include protein-packed foods such as beans, fish, and lean meats, and add in plenty of vegetables and fruits, which contain free-radical scavenging antioxidants, plus whole-grain foods such as brown rice.

woman drinking glass of water

They stay hydrated

Although there’s no definitive evidence that guzzling water and juice will move your cold along faster, it’s pretty well accepted that staying hydrated helps to unclog and thin your mucus so that you can blow it out more effectively, according to Jean Carstensen, MD, instructor in medicine and pediatrics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Water is your best bet, but fresh OJ is also good (it has the added benefit of vitamin C, which may help improve symptoms, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health), and some doctors swear by hot ginger tea with lemon.

clear vitamin capsule spilling out of a bottle

They get some vitamin D

Cold season tends to strike during the winter months when people aren’t exposed to the sun as often as during the other seasons, and some doctors believe that’s no coincidence. A randomized trial published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that children who took vitamin D had a lower risk of influenza A infection during flu season compared with children  who took a placebo (about 11% got sick vs. 19% with placebo). (Here are 50 ways to avoid catching a cold this season.)