Coming down with a cold is a pretty miserable experience. You’re tired, uncomfortable and ready to just feel better.
If you have a cold, you may have a runny nose, cough or congestion. You may even have “low-grade fevers, fatigue, sneezing, sinus pressure and muscle soreness,” according to Dr. Christopher Scuderi, a family physician in Jacksonville, Florida.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic pill that will just make your cold go away. Instead, you have to wait it out. But experts also say there are things you can do at home to help yourself feel a little better throughout your sickness — and many of these things don’t cost any money at all.
Below, doctors share what they do when treating a cold at home:
They eat nutritious foods.
“Fundamentally, to treat any viral infection, the biggest thing we can do is give our body enough rest, focus on hydration [and] good calories,” said Dr. Dhaval Desai, the director of hospital medicine at Emory St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta.
He noted that good calories include high-protein foods (eggs, fish, chicken, Greek yogurt, peanut butter) and some carbs for energy. He also recommended that you avoid processed foods that don’t have much nutritional value, as well as caffeinated drinks.
Dr. Judith Flores, a pediatrician in New York and a medical expert from the National Hispanic Medical Association, added that you should stay away from alcohol, which can not only disrupt your sleep (which is important for recovery) but can also interfere with any over-the-counter medications you’re taking.
They stay hydrated.
As mentioned above, hydration is a key way to treat your cold. In fact, Flores said you should hydrate as much as possible during the time you are sick. This is especially important because most adults do not drink enough water to begin with, she noted, which makes this a challenge for people all the time and when they’re sick.
“Starting to really purposely drink anything other [than] alcohol is great,” Flores said, adding that alcohol dehydrates you.
The Mayo Clinic recommends that you drink water, juice, water with lemon or clear broth to reach your hydration goals.
They prioritize sleep.
There’s a reason you’re more tired when you have a cold. Your body is craving rest to help it recover from your sickness. Because of this, Scuderi said he encourages rest when anyone is feeling sick (including himself).
According to the Mayo Clinic, “infection-fighting antibodies and cells are reduced during periods when you don’t get enough sleep,” which leaves you either more susceptible to colds or may mean it will take you longer to feel better when you are sick.
“This is a good time to slow down and let the body’s immune system do its work,” he said. So, if you wake up with a cold, it’s a good idea to go back to sleep, let yourself take a nap halfway through the day or go to bed early that night.
Scuderi added that he also does not take on any extra commitments when he’s fighting a cold so he can do this. “Resting makes a difference in how you feel.”
They care for their most severe symptom.
Treating a cold is “all about symptomatic care,” meaning you should address the symptoms that are bothering you most, Desai said.
He added that he’ll typically follow the steps above before turning to over-the-counter medications for cold treatment. However, he said, there’s nothing wrong with using medication for symptom control if you need it.
For general body pain, you can try acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). For congestion, you can try medicines like Mucinex, he said. Just note that moderation is key; you don’t want to overdo it with your medications. And you shouldn’t mix your over-the-counter medicine, either, Flores added.
“Really pick and choose what your most severe symptom is and look at over-the-counter [options], whether it’s cough suppression, decongestant or just general aches and pains, and go after that,” Desai said.
If you have any health conditions, it’s also important to check with your doctor before starting any new over-the-counter medicines, Flores added.
Additionally, Desai stressed that this over-the-counter medication advice is meant for adults — children should not be given over-the-counter cold medicine for treatment unless directed by a doctor.
“We really don’t recommend cough suppressants or any cold over-the-counter medications for young kids, especially under the age of 6 to 8,” he said. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration states that cough and cold medicines can have life-threatening effects on children under 2.
They soothe their coughs with a spoonful of honey.
Both Desai and Scuderi said a bit of honey can help suppress your cough. Studies have shown that honey can reduce coughs in children and adults, Desai said, but note that it’s only meant for children over the age of 1.
If you’re feeling sick, you can add some honey to your tea, some oatmeal or even just swallow a spoonful of honey on its own.
Or they gargle salt water.
“If you have a sore throat, saltwater gargles work very well and are simple to make,” Scuderi said.
Scuderi advised mixing half a teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of warm water and gargle it to help alleviate your sore throat. This won’t cure your sore throat, but it can provide temporary relief.
They use a cool-mist humidifier.
When Flores is sick, she says she turns on her cool-mist humidifier, gets a big bottle of water and gets into bed.
“Using a cool-mist humidifier is something that I recommend to adults and children,” Flores said. “It really humidifies your nasal passages and allows you to sleep, which is what you need.” Specifically, it reduces congestion by adding humidity to the air, which makes snot thinner so you can breathe more easily through your nose, she explained.
She swears by cool-mist humidifiers so much that she regularly gives them as baby shower gifts for new parents, who will definitely be dealing with colds (both their own and their child’s) in the years to come. You can purchase cool-mist humidifiers from sellers like Amazon and Target.
But, Flores added, if you have chronic health conditions like heart disease, lung disease or asthma, it’s best to talk to your doctor before using one of these machines — and if you’re severely ill (so, not just a cold), you should see a doctor, too.
They do not take antibiotics when they have a common cold.
Many people rush to their primary care physician in hopes of securing antibiotics to get over a cold faster, but that is not the intention of the medication, Desai said.
“Antibiotics work against bacterial infections,” Desai explained. “The common cold is caused by a virus,” making colds viral infections — not bacterial.
In other words, antibiotics are not designed for colds and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, won’t make you feel healthier.
If you take antibiotics in hopes of getting over a cold, you’re putting your body at risk for toxic effects, Desai added. Plus, if people overdo antibiotics, over time we can “create what we call resistance, so these antibiotics that we use … are not going to [work] when we need them for something bacterial.”
And they skip tough workouts.
According to Scuderi, you should “avoid strenuous exercise” when you’re fighting a cold. This means you should not jump on your Peloton or challenge yourself to a quick run — even if your smartwatch or workout app is putting pressure on you to exercise.
Scuderi noted that if you are feeling up to it, you can try a light walk outside or some gentle stretching. These can help you feel better, he said, but you shouldn’t push yourself if you don’t feel up to it.
They take COVID and flu tests.
COVID-19 and colds look pretty similar — people infected with these viruses report symptoms including sneezing, coughing and fatigue.
Flores said you want to make sure you don’t mistake COVID-19 for a cold.
“The most important thing to do is definitely [take] a COVID test” to rule out a COVID infection, she said. If your test comes back negative, you can move forward and treat your cold. If it comes back positive, you should contact your doctor.
If you suspect you may have the flu, you should get in touch with your doctor for potential testing and treatment options, too. “Testing is something I do right away for my protection and the people that are around me,” she added.
And even if your test comes back negative but you’re having concerning symptoms like wheezing, Flores said, you should also contact your doctor.
Finally, they stay home when they can, wear a mask when out and keep their hands clean.
You are well aware of the preventative power of staying home (if you’re able) when you’re sick and isolating yourself from loved ones so they don’t get sick, too. Both Flores and Desai suggest that you follow these rules for cold prevention.
“A lot of the lessons we learned with COVID are the things we should do when we have colds,” Flores said.
Beyond staying home and masking, this also means washing your hands often.
“Colds can be very, very contagious, and you can avoid [getting infected] by keeping yourself safe and your hands clean,” Flores added.
Though there is no vaccine for colds, Desai added that there are vaccinations available for COVID-19 and the flu, and it’s important that you stay up-to-date on your vaccinations to help keep yourself healthy.
“I am always a proponent of vaccinating ourselves to help eliminate the risk of severe disease related to the flu and coronavirus, too,” Desai said.