If you're lucky, you won't be one of the 1 billion cold sufferers in America this year. If you're not so lucky, you may find yourself hit with a bout of sinus congestion, coughing, sore throat, aches and other cold-related maladies. Adults get an average of two to four colds annually, while kids can catch many more [source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases].
Viruses -- more than 200 types -- cause colds, and unfortunately, there's no cure or vaccination. So what can you do when you find yourself or your family down for the count? Wait it out. Colds last about a week, and although there's no quick fix, treating the symptoms may help you feel better while it runs its course.
Over-the-counter Cold Medicines
Browsing the aisles at your local pharmacy, you'll find cough suppressants, decongestants, expectorants and fever reducers, but what nonprescription cold medicine will take care of your cold? None, actually. But don't despair: Using them will help reduce your uncomfortable cold symptoms, so it's not a bad idea to pick up an over-the-counter cold reliever or fever reducer.
Be sure to treat only the symptoms you have, though. Many over-the-counter cold and flu medicines contain ingredients to treat a variety of complaints -- probably more than you have -- so be sure to read the labels and choose the option closest to your own symptoms.
Avoid antibiotics, which have become a go-to for many of us when we feel under the weather. Viruses cause colds, and antibiotics won't help against them. However, if your symptoms don't improve after about seven to 10 days, you may have also developed a bacterial infection, such as a sinus infection, and a visit to your doctor is in order.
Eating Chicken Soup
It's not just a myth: Scientists have found that chicken soup may help to relieve symptoms of upper respiratory infections.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center discovered that the benefits of chicken soup are more than just comfort and good taste -- chicken soup appears to have anti-inflammatory properties that may help us feel better while we wait for a cold to run its course. What they discovered is that chicken soup reduces the activity of neutrophils in the body. Neutrophils are part of our immune system -- a type of white blood cell that can trigger our body's inflammatory response [source: Rennard et al]. By reducing that inflammatory response, chicken soup may help reduce cold symptoms.
Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
Most healthy adults can count on their immune systems to fight off infection, but even the heartiest immune system can't fight off every infection. You can give it a little support when trying to fight off a cold by supplementing your diet with vitamins and minerals. Let's start with the first cold-fighter that comes to mind for most of us: vitamin C.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant, and like other antioxidants such as vitamin E, selenium and beta-carotene (which the body turns into vitamin A), it helps keep our bodies free from infection and fight off infections that do strike. Don't consider them protection from colds, though -- while there are conflicting results about the ability of vitamin C to protect you from catching a cold, the vitamin will likely only help to reduce your symptoms.
In addition to adding more antioxidant-rich foods and supplements to your cold-fighting diet, also consider zinc. While the verdict is still out, zinc may help your body produce more white blood cells, your immune system's key infection fighters.
Catching Some ZZZs
Although sleep needs vary from person to person, we adults need about seven to nine hours of sleep every night to be at our best, both mentally and physically [source: National Sleep Foundation]. But, in reality, about 29 percent of Americans get fewer than seven hours of sleep a night. If you're not regularly getting your eight hours, consider this: Getting fewer than seven hours of sleep a night raises your risk of catching a cold threefold, as compared to people who average eight hours a night [source: Engel].
And if you've already caught a cold? Staying well rested will give your body a chance to focus on getting well.
Along with a change in foliage, autumn ushers in cold season. With a drop in temperature comes a drop in humidity, and cold viruses like the dry air and your dry mucus membranes.
Be sure to drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. Water is always a good choice, and hot tea will help to soothe a sore throat, especially if you add a squirt of honey. Steamy showers (or your head over a steamy bowl of soup) and saline nasal sprays can help ease congestion, at least temporarily, by hydrating and moisturizing irritated nasal passages. Supplement the humidity in your home with a humidifier -- not only will it help your cold symptoms, but it will also help improve your odds against catching a cold in the first place.
HowStuffWorks finds out about the history and lessons of the Spanish flu pandemic, 100 years later.
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- Aubrey, Allison. "Colds And Quality of Sleep Linked, Study Shows." NPR. Jan. 13, 2009. (Nov. 4, 2010) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99286183
- Engel, Mary. "Fighting a cold? Every bit of sleep counts." Los Angeles Times. Jan. 17, 2009. (Nov. 4, 2010) http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jan/17/science/sci-sleep17
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- Nieman, David C. et al. "Upper respiratory tract infection is reduced in physically fit and active adults." British Journal of Sports Medicine. Nov. 1, 2010. (Nov. 4, 2010) http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2010/09/30/bjsm.2010.077875.abstract
- Rennard, Barbara O. et al. "Chicken Soup Inhibits Neutrophil Chemotaxis In Vitro." CHEST. October 2000. (Nov. 4, 2010) http://www.unmc.edu/chickensoup/docs/chickensouppublishedstudy2000.pdf
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- WebMD. "9 Tips to Treat Colds and Flu the 'Natural' Way." Oct. 1, 2009. (Nov. 4, 2010) http://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/9-tips-to-treat-colds-and-flu-the-natural-way