Headache. Stuffy nose. Cough. Fever. Itchy eyes. Sore throat. Muscle aches. If you're like most people, you know the symptoms of the common cold all too well. Although Americans spend more than $5 billion annually on doctor visits and cold remedies-everything from tissues and vitamin C to over-the-counter decongestants and herb teas-there is no cure for the common cold.
Colds, also called upper respiratory infections, are caused by hundreds of different viruses,according to David N. Gilbert, M.D., director of the Department of Medical Education at Providence Medical Center in Portland, Oregon. "But we don't have any drugs that can kill or inhibit these viruses," he says. "We have to depend on the body's natural defenses."
During a cold, virus particles penetrate the mucous layer of the nose and throat and attach themselves to cells there. The viruses punch holes in the cell membranes, allowing viral genetic material to enter the cells. Within a short time, the virus takes over and forces the cells to produce thousands of new virus particles.
In response to this viral invasion, the body marshals its defenses: The nose and throat release chemicals that spark the immune system; injured cells produce chemicals called prostaglandins, which trigger inflammation and attract infection-fighting white blood cells; tiny blood vessels stretch, allowing spaces to open up to allow blood fluid (plasma) and specialized white cells to enter the infected area; the body temperature rises, enhancing the immune response; and histamine is released, increasing the production of nasal mucus in an effort to trap viral particles and remove them from the body.
As the battle against the cold virus rages on, the body counterattacks with its heavy artillery specialized white blood cells called monocytes and lymphocytes; interferon, often called the "body's own antiviral drug"; and 20 or more proteins that circulate in the blood plasma and coat the viruses the and infected cells, making it easier for the white blood cells to identify and destroy them.
The symptoms you experience as a cold are actually the body's natural immune response. In fact, says Michael Castleman, author of Cold Cures, by the time you feel like you're coming down with a cold, you've likely already had it for a day and a half.
Many people believe the old adage, "Do nothing and your cold will last seven days. Do everything and it will last a week." While we may not be able to cure the common cold, the simple self-care techniques that follow can help you feel more comfortable and speed healing.
Drink plenty of fluids.
"Fluids keep the mucus thin," says Gilbert. Donald Girard, M.D., head of the Division of General Internal Medicine at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, agrees. "Colds can make you somewhat dehydrated and you don't even know it," says Girard. Drink at least eight ounces of fluid every two hours.
Cook up some chicken soup.
One of the most beneficial hot fluids you can consume when you have a cold is chicken soup. It was first prescribed for the common cold by rabbi/physician Moses Maimonides in twelfth-century Egypt and has been a favorite folk
remedy ever since. In 1978, Marvin Sackner, M.D., of Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach, Florida, included chicken soup in a test of the effects of sipping hot and cold water on the clearance of mucus. Chicken soup placed first, hot water second, and cold water a distant third. Sackner's work has since been replicated by other researchers. While doctors aren't sure exactly chicken soup helps clear nasal passages, they "it's just what the doctor ordered."
Doctors disagree about whether or not you should take a day or two off from work when you come down with a cold. However, they do agree that extra rest helps. Staying away from the work site may be a good idea from a prevention standpoint, too. Your coworkers will probably appreciate your not spreading your cold virus around the office. If you do decide to stay home, forgo those chores and take it easy, read a good book, take a nap.
Girard adds that you should skip your normal exercise routine when you've got a cold. In fact, he says, if you're feeling pretty bad, you should just head for bed.
"I usually recommend people stay indoors and stay warm when they have a cold" says Girard. If nothing else, staying warm may make you feel more comfortable, especially if you have a fever.
Use a saltwater wash.
The inflammation and swelling in the nose during a cold is caused by molecules called cytokines, or lymphokines, which are made by the lymphocytes, explains Stephen R. Jones, M.D., chief of medicine at Good Samaritan Hospital and Medical Center in Portland, Oregon. "Recent evidence has shown that if we can wash out those cytokines, it reduces the swelling and fluid production." Jones recommends filling a clean nasal-spray bottle with dilute salt water (one level teaspoon salt to one quart water) and spraying each nostril three or four times. Repeat five to six times per day.
Girard says gargling with warm salt water (a quarter teaspoon salt in four ounces warm water) every one to two hours can soothe your sore throat. "Salt water is an astringent that is very soothing to the inflamed tissues, and it tends to loosen mucus," he says.
Consider vitamin C.
Although studies suggest that vitamin C may boost the body's immune system, the use of this vitamin in treating colds is still controversial. Many physicians don't recommend vitamin C as a cold remedy. Others, including cold researcher Elliot Dick, Ph.D., chief of the Respiratory Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have found that taking 2,000 milligrams or more of vitamin C daily can lessen the severity of cold symptoms.
If you do decide to try boosting your vitamin C intake during a cold, don't overdo it. While vitamin C has been found to be relatively safe at doses of up to 10,000 milligrams per day, some people find vitamin C causes diarrhea at or above the 10,000-milligram level. Perhaps the safest way to get more vitamin C is to choose vitamin C-rich foods more often. For example, since you'll need to increase your fluid intake while you have a cold, fill some of that requirement with orange juice.
The steam from a vaporizer can loosen mucus, especially if the sputum is thick, says Girard. It may also raise the humidity in the immediate area slightly, which may make you feel more comfortable.
"Smokers have colds longer in duration than nonsmokers," says Gilbert. "If you chronically irritate the bronchial tubes while you have a cold, you're more likely to develop a complication like pneumonia."
In addition to irritating the throat and bronchial tubes, smoking has been shown to depress the immune system. Since you have to depend on your own immune system rather than medicine to cure a cold, you'll want it to be in the best condition possible to wage the "cold" war.
Stay away from "hot toddies.
"While a hot alcoholic beverage might sound good when you're feeling achy and stuffy, Gilbert says it increases mucous membrane congestion. "If you want to minimize your discomfort," he says, "stay away from alcohol."
Maintain a positive attitude.
Although mind-body science is in its infancy, some researchers suggest that a positive I-can-beat-this-cold attitude may actually stimulate the immune system. "If you give up, so does your immune system," says Castleman. "Buoyancy and self-confidence help rev up the immune system or at least keep it from collapsing while it fights your cold."
Jones isn't as convinced about the connection between the mind and the immune system. He says the evidence directly linking one's thoughts with immunity is "interesting, but inconclusive." But, he admits, "a positive attitude is always best and certainly couldn't hurt your cold".