Get Well Soon!
At the first sign of illness—whether it’s the sniffles, a cough, or chills—take these steps throughout the day to feel better faster.
CONSIDER CALLING IN SICK
The first morning you wake up feeling as if a cold has moved in—you’re stuffy, a cough is brewing, and your brain is far from focused—you need unlimited access to rest. Don’t think you’ll be a hero if you drag yourself in to work; you’ll likely just feel lousy longer, says Chris D’Adamo, Ph.D., director of research at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. And you’ll be spreading your germs: You’re most contagious for the first two to three days, when you’re sneezing and coughing up a storm.
TEST FOR COVID-19
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends taking an at-home test as soon as you develop symptoms that could indicate COVID-19 such as sore throat, congestion, cough, fever, headache, body aches, nausea, and diarrhea. If the result is positive, stay home for at least five days and isolate from others, tell anyone you were in close contact with, and alert your doctor if you’re over 50, you have an underlying condition, or your symptoms worsen. If it’s negative and you still have symptoms, stay home and retest in 24 to 48 hours.
STEAM UP, RINSE OUT
Climb into a hot shower. Warm, moist air helps hydrate the membranes in your nose and throat so mucus can drain more freely, says Andrew Weil, M.D., founder and director of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine. When you get out, you can use a neti pot to help thin and flush away anything that’s still stuffing you up as well as some of the germs in there, he says.
MAKE TIME FOR TEA
Pour yourself a steaming cup of just about anything—it may help with the congested feeling. It’s especially good to fill that mug with echinacea tea, which may reduce cold symptoms. Follow that with a little something to eat.
You may want to chase breakfast with a probiotic. One review found that people who took probiotics or had probiotic yogurt drinks containing lactobacillus and/or bifidobacterium strains got over their colds faster. Also try popping zinc lozenges: Research has shown that they may shorten a cold if you take them in the first 24 hours of having symptoms. Just get the OK from your doctor first, as zinc can interact with meds, and take it with food to prevent a grumbly stomach.
HEAD BACK TO BED
You can’t recuperate as easily without rest. Fatigue is one way nature tells us to devote energy to the immune response instead of running around, notes Christopher Coe, Ph.D., director of the Harlow Center for Biological Psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Can’t nap because your nose is clogged? Try opening things up with a saline nasal mist, or consider a medicated decongestant nasal spray, says Stacey Curtis, Pharm.D., a community pharmacist and a clinical associate professor at the University of Florida College of Pharmacy. These sprays ease nasal-passage swelling more quickly than pills.
If you are congested but must stay up—say, you have to get some work done—look for a decongestant med that contains pseudoephedrine, says Curtis. This can be purchased only from a pharmacy, where it’s stored behind the counter.
EAT SOME LUNCH
Even when your appetite is low, don’t say no to chicken soup. The hot broth will help ease congestion, and the saltiness will make you thirsty so you’ll hydrate with other liquids, says Joan Salge Blake, Ed.D., R.D.N., a clinical professor at Boston University and host of the nutrition and health podcast Spot On!
WALK IT OFF
If you have symptoms only above the neck (congestion, minor sore throat, runny nose) with no fever, swollen glands, or achiness, go out for a short walk. Experts believe moderate exercise helps antibodies and infection-fighting white blood cells circulate through your body more rapidly. Don’t get too ambitious, though: Avoid intense workouts, and make sure to drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.
CUE UP SOME FUNNY VIDEOS
Pretty bored by now, eh? Tuning in to a little funny stuff might give your immune system a nudge. (If you’ve been slogging through work, put on your earbuds and indulge in a short LOL session.) Research shows that laughing may stimulate production of antibodies that destroy bacteria and viruses. Plus, you deserve a smile right about now.
You might not feel like eating a meal, but you need fuel—especially if you have a fever, as your body is using a lot of energy to fight this thing, says D’Adamo. Consider whipping up a quick stir-fry including thin slices of beef (for zinc), mushrooms (they contain potential immune boosters called beta-glucans), and crushed garlic (for antimicrobial allicin).
SET THE STAGE FOR A BETTER NIGHT
For most people, cold symptoms get worse at night, says Dr. Weil, especially when they first lie down. You’re likely to cough more because of mucus dripping along the back of your nose and down your throat. So before bed, take all that sniffling and hacking down a notch with a mini steam room. Start by boiling some water and pouring it into a large bowl. Drape a towel loosely over your head as you lean over the bowl (not too close!) and breathe deeply for a few minutes. Then, if you have a humidifier, keep the hydration going all night.
TAKE MEDS THAT EASE ZZZ’S
To avoid having symptoms wake you, choose nighttime formulations of medicines. Or try a natural sleep aid: D’Adamo recommends 1 mg to 3 mg of melatonin (a sleep hormone) 30 minutes before bed. Opt for a time-release formula, he says, so the effects will last all night.
HIT THE LIGHTS
Yes, it’s early, but that’s the point. “Rest is what’s really going to help speed along the recovery process,” says D’Adamo. Rearrange pillows to elevate your head and neck comfortably; that will ease sinus pressure and help you breathe.
DAY 2 AND BEYOND
Get more rest than you think you need. If you go to work, that should be all you do—cancel evening plans and conk out super early. “If you’ve been taking zinc or echinacea, keep that going until you’ve completely recovered,” says D’Adamo. Decongestants and cough meds? “You’ll probably need to continue for a few days, but after the second day, try using them less frequently.” After the third day, make sure you stop the nasal sprays; it’s hard to wean yourself from them after that.
GET THE RIGHT MED
Viruses cause colds, the flu, and COVID-19, so antibiotics won’t fight them. However, your doctor may recommend an antiviral like Tamiflu for influenza, Paxlovid for COVID-19, or an antibiotic if you’re fighting a bacterial infection such as strep throat. If you stick with OTC meds, buy a formula that targets your worst symptom, as combo products make it easy to double-dose on ingredients, says Stacey Curtis, Pharm.D. Battling multiple symptoms? Ask the pharmacist (or better yet, your doctor) what meds are safe to mix.
✚ Chest CONGESTION
Consider an expectorant like guaifenesin to break up mucus.
✚ A CONSTANT HACKING COUGH
A cough suppressant such as dextromethorphan might help. It basically shuts off the cough center in your brain, says Curtis. Some products also contain ingredients that calm the back of your throat.
✚ A REALLY STUFFY NOSE
If a saline product doesn’t work, you can try a nasal spray with oxymetazoline. These sprays force nasal blood vessels shut, but limit use of them to three days or you could get rebound congestion.
✚ A STUFFY NOSE + SINUS PRESSURE
Curtis recommends a decongestant with pseudoephedrine. The downside: It can make some people feel a bit jumpy.
✚ A SORE THROAT
Cough drops, lozenges, or sprays with a numbing agent like benzocaine or phenol may help. For mild scratchiness, look for lozenges with pectin. If your sore throat is due to postnasal drip, consider taking an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine.