Can I run when I have a cold?

It's OK to run when it's cold outside. But is it OK to run when you have a cold?
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Running is one of the most popular forms of exercise in the United States, and it's easy to see why. The only equipment you really need is a good pair of running shoes, and you can go for a jog just about anywhere. Plus, running is meditative, burns calories, builds your endurance and tones your body.

Many runners find the activity addictive. You've probably heard of the so-called "runner's high" that joggers covet. Running releases endorphins into the brain, and endorphins are responsible for mood changes. The harder you run, the more endorphins released, and the giddier your "high." Some studies show that this endorphin rush allows people to continue running even when injured.


And that brings us to the point of this article -- why people continue their running regimens even when they're sick. Most of us curl up in bed with some chicken soup and the remote control when we're under the weather. But runners often hit the treadmill or the road. Are they helping or hurting themselves by jogging with a cold? How do you know when it's OK to run and when it's better to take off the trainers and climb in bed?

The best way to decide whether you should exercise is to employ what doctors call the "neck check." Feel free to go running if your cold is "above the neck." Above-the-neck symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat

Doctors advise against proceeding with your exercise regimen if your symptoms are "below the neck," however. These symptoms include:

  • Chest congestion
  • Hacking cough
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • High fever
  • Fatigue
  • Body and muscle aches

Some people think that running in cold temperatures will actually make them sick. But this isn't really true. You can't freeze your lungs or windpipe. Your body heats the air you breathe. When the air is particularly cold, you may feel a burning in your chest as you inhale. If that's the case, try covering your mouth with a scarf or wearing a ski mask. That'll help heat up the air before you inhale it.

Keep in mind, though, if you have an infection in your chest or throat, running outside can indeed make things worse (according to the below-the-neck rule). But if you have a simple head cold, it should be fine to take that run, even if it's cold outside. The adrenaline running provides can even help clear up a stuffy head.

Next, we'll talk a bit about the positive effects of exercise on your body and understanding your limits.


Positive Effects of Exercise

Exercise isn't just for weight loss or building muscle. Obviously, it's great for those things, but exercise also provides a host of other benefits -- both physical and mental.

Exercise boosts your brainpower by increasing serotonin, which makes you more productive. It also decreases stress levels and gives you more energy via endorphin release. Even better, regular exercise keeps you healthier and slows down progression of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis and loss of muscle mass. Keep up your exercise plan and you'll find yourself with a strengthened cardiovascular system.


But what about running in particular? Running burns the most calories of just about any type of exercise you might do at the gym. It also helps prevent osteoarthritis in your knees. Running bolsters cartilage and strengthens ligaments around your joints by increasing oxygen flow and flushing out toxins. That said, you should always take care to treat an injured knee and never continue to run when you have a joint or knee injury without seeing a doctor first.

Even though it may be OK to work out with a cold, you should understand and respect your personal limits. If you're feeling weak and can't perform to your usual ability, it might be time to take a break until you feel better. Exercise can aggravate an existing infection. Also, if your performance is diminished, you're losing the benefit of the workout anyway.

A sinus infection, for example, does fall into the "above the neck rule," but some doctors advise against running while you have one. You probably won't even feel like running when you're suffering from a sinus infection, but the standard advice is to wait it out for three days. Some sinus infections can lead to pneumonia.

You can't "sweat out" a fever by running, either. If your fever is above 99 degrees Fahrenheit, you probably should stay home. Exercising with a fever will put you on a fast track toward dehydration, so be careful.

If, despite your best efforts to stay well, you get sick, here are a few tips for a speedy recovery. When suffering from a cold or flu, try to do the following:

  • Drink lots of fluids.
  • Gargle with warm water.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Take zinc lozenges at the first sign of sickness.
  • Regularly take multi-vitamins.
  • Use a humidifier at night.
  • Listen to your body.
  • Rest!

To find out more about exercise and health, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Bloom, Marc. "Should You Run When You're Sick?" Runner's World. August 2004. (July 20, 2010),7120,s6-241-286--9082-0,00.html
  • Clark, Josh. "The Winter of Your Discontent?" Cool Running. 2010. (July 20, 2010)
  • Kolata, Gina. "Yes, Running Can Make You High." The New York Times. March 27, 2008. (July 20, 2010)
  • Laskowski, Edward R. "Is it OK to exercise if I have a cold but no fever?" June 20, 2009. (July 20, 2010)
  • Sarnataro, Barbara Russi. "Top 10 Fitness Facts." WebMD. May 14, 2008. (July 20, 2010)
  • Van Deusen, Amy. "Why Run?" Women's Health. March 31, 2010. (July 20, 2010)
  • Weil, Richard. "Can I Go Jogging if I Have a Cold? WebMD. March 24, 2003. (July 20, 2010)