With COVID-19 monopolizing our world for so long now, you might have almost forgotten about that pesky, sniffly sickness that usually comes around every fall and winter—the common cold. Just like COVID, the common cold is a contagious viral infection—but unlike COVID, it’s relatively harmless beyond causing a few days of annoying symptoms. “The common cold is an infection of the nose, throat, ears, and occasionally upper chest, and as symptoms progress, the virus moves out of the system over the course of usually three to five days.” says Erika Schwartz, MDauthor of Don’t Let Your Doctor Kill You and six other books.
There were significantly fewer cases of the common cold Last year, since we spent so much time inside and away from other people, but with the COVID-19 vaccines now widely available, many people are getting out and about a bit more. So, chances are the common cold will make a reappearance in the coming months. Here are the symptoms to watch out for, and how to ease them.
You might think that sneezing or a runny nose is the first sign that you’ve got a cold, but “brain fog is often the warning sign that a cold is about to start,” says Dr. Schwartz. You may feel a little out of it, tired, or like your head just doesn’t feel quite right—in this case, be especially vigilant about hand-washing and keeping away from others so you don’t spread the virus.
Beat brain fog: Make it your mission to get plenty of sleep, which helps ensure you have the brainpower to focus and pay attention throughout the day. Light exercise can help boost blood flow and oxygen to the brain, too. And try to keep a handle on stress, which can cloud thinking on the best of days. Finally, nosh on foods that are high in brain-friendly nutrients, such as vitamin B-12-rich fish and antioxidant-heavy berries and leafy greens.
You know that stuffy feeling feeling? That happens because your immune system is actively trying to flush viruses or bacteria out of your body. “When viruses get past the normal mucus lining inside the nose, your immune system sends signals to the nose cells to produce more mucus, and increases blood flow to the nasal passages so mucus can be more easily created in an effort to push those viral particles out,” explains Shirin Peters, MDfounder of Bethany Medical Clinic in New York City.
Cope with congestion: Ease the naturally discomfort by dissolving a few drops of Clear Sinus Aromatea and Breath Drops by Ravenscroft Escentials on your tongue or stirred into a cup of hot water—essential oils like peppermint and eucalyptus help open up sinuses to reduce congestion. Or, dab on some Vicks VapoRub for an on-the-go nose-clearing whiff.
If you’ve got some of the symptoms above and are constantly saying, “a-choo,” chances are you’re battling a cold. “When foreign particles enter the nasal passages, the nerves in those passages are triggered to give you a reflexive sneeze to expel those particles,” says Dr. Peters. Remember to sneeze into your elbow to avoid contaminating your hands or spraying your sickness into the air or onto others.
Stop the sneezing: OK, there’s not much you can do to prevent a sneeze, but you could consider taking a zinc supplement like Cold-Eeze or product like Zicam to potentially shorten how long you’ll feel sick. “Zinc It is a micronutrient that’s anti-inflammatory and stabilizes antioxidants in your body, and it supports your immune system in several ways to help you effectively fight viruses and bacteria,” says Dr. Peters. “Take these products at the first sign of a cold to reduce symptoms.” Elderberry has also been shown to help reduce symptoms and duration, according to some studies. Other good immune supporters are vitamin C and green tea, Dr. Peter adds.
A scratchy throat makes your voice raspy and it painful to swallow, and it’s another symptom of the common cold. It’s caused by swelling of respiratory passages, says Dr. Schwartz, and is the body’s fight response to the illness-causing intruder. “It’s trying to get rid of the virus and responds by increasing blood flow to that area and releasing substances like histamines that make our nose run and our throats hurt,” Dr. Schwartz says.
Soothe a sore throat: Warm liquids can make a scratchy throat feel really good—sip on bone broth (sprinkle on immune-supporting spices like turmeric and a shake of black pepper), or slurp up chicken soup that’s loaded with veggies and protein, a combo that delivers your nutrients body needs to beat sickness. A hot cup of tea is also soothing; consider an antioxidant-rich brew like matcha, chai, or green tea.
Feeling tired is totally normal when you have a cold, but if you’re really dragging, that extreme exhaustion could be a sign of the flu or COVID-19. “When your immune system revs up to respond to an infection, it causes your core temperature to go up and your energy to drop,” Dr. Peters says.
Fight fatigue: Allowing your body to rest is crucial for healing, says Dr. Schwartz, as is staying hydrated, filling up on nutritious vitamin-rich foods, and getting plenty of sleep. It’s also a good idea to stay home to avoid getting others sick. “Pushing through your symptoms and continuing with our usual daily activities may cause our symptoms to drag on longer,” adds Dr. Peters.
Coughing is usually due to an overproduction of mucus; When some drips into the back of your throat (aka post-nasal drip), it causes irritation, leading you to cough, Dr. Peters says.
Cough: Try Wedderspoon Organic Manuka Honey Drops to soothe your cough and a sore throat, or swirl a Manuka honey, like Three Peaks New Zealand Manuka Honey into a cup of hot water with a squeeze of lemon for a throat-soothing sip.
Alyssa is a senior editor for the Hearst Lifestyle Group Health Newsroom, supporting Prevention, Good Housekeeping, and Woman’s Day. She previously worked at Reader’s Digest, where she was Research chief, responsible for the vertical health of their site, and edited health content for the print product and special projects. She has also freelanced for Chowhound, HealthiNation.com, Huffington Post, and more.