Handwashing is an important way to keep viruses like the cold away.
Between sleepless nights and a general feeling of lousiness, coming down with a cold is never pleasant. Plus, colds always seem to have a way of striking at the most inopportune time — like before a vacation, a birthday or during the holiday season.
Colds are upper respiratory viruses that spread through droplets that are produced when someone coughs or sneezes, said Dr. Delana Wardlaw, a family medicine doctor at Temple Health in Philadelphia. “So, people can get it by coming into contact with others who are sick or by touching contaminated surfaces and putting their hands on their face,” Wardlaw said.
You’re probably pretty familiar with colds by this point ― they happen all the time. In fact, they are the most common acute illness in the United States, according to Dr. Richard Chung, an adolescent medicine specialist at Duke Health in North Carolina.
“Although it is typically not severe ... it is a significant issue that causes a lot of disruption in households, workplaces and schools,” Chung told HuffPost via email.
But doctors say there are ways to keep yourself from catching a cold. Here’s what you can do to keep yourself healthy.
Wash your hands.
“Viruses are spread through touch (person-to-person or a person touching ... objects that may carry the infection on their surfaces) as well as droplets transmitted through sneezing, cough, or other close contact,” Chung said.
“Viruses can remain on skin for a couple of hours and on other surfaces for several hours,” Chung added.
This makes handwashing an important step in preventing infection, he noted. Proper handwashing consists of washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds.
Disinfect high-touch surfaces.
Areas like door handles, cell phones and light switches can all become contaminated with cold virus droplets if they’re touched by someone who’s sick.
“Decontaminating high-touch surfaces in shared areas can also be helpful,” Chung said.
Get lots of sleep and practice other smart habits.
“We just really want to encourage people to practice healthy habits ... making sure we’re getting adequate sleep, making sure that we are getting an appropriate diet, making sure that we are treating our chronic medical conditions,” Wardlaw explained.
When you’re in a healthier state overall, your risk of catching a cold decreases, Wardlaw added. Additionally, basic self-care like sleeping, exercising and eating a nutritious diet can help keep your immune system at its best, she said.
Getting enough sleep, eating a well-balanced diet and taking care of yourself, in general, are all good ways to keep a cold away.
Consider wearing a mask.
“We’re in a time now where masks are frequently used,” Wardlaw said, noting that they protect folks from getting COVID-19 in addition to other viruses. For example, cases of the flu decreased when mask mandates were in place a few years ago.
Additionally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wearing a high-quality mask (like an N95 or KN95) can protect you and those around you from respiratory illnesses.
Avoid crowded spaces.
If you have a big celebration or trip planned, it’s a good idea to avoid crowded, indoor spaces in the days before the event to help reduce your risk of catching a cold.
“Exposure to larger numbers of people who may have infection, particularly in close quarters, may increase risk of infection,” Chung said.
Again, this is something many folks learned early on in the pandemic when people were (and still are) encouraged to spend time in outdoor, well-ventilated spaces as opposed to crowded, indoor areas.
You can consider supplements like zinc, but doctors say they’re not totally backed by science.
“There really isn’t strong evidence to support a range of other products people commonly use in an effort to try and prevent colds including probiotics, vitamin C or D supplementation, or zinc sulfate,” according to Chung.
The data are mixed. Overall, studies have not shown evidence that zinc prevents colds. And, while some studies say zinc can lessen the amount of time you’re sick, others say it does not, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The same goes for vitamin C, according to the Cleveland Clinic — people who take extra vitamin C do not have fewer colds, and the length of time someone is sick decreased in some studies (but not in others).
So, you can consider supplements to help with your cold, but they aren’t guaranteed to work. Also, it’s best to talk to your doctor before trying something new; taking too much of a supplement like zinc, vitamin C or vitamin D is not good, either.
“There’s no magic medicine,” Wardlaw said. “A cold will run its course, you do not need [a] particular medicine to treat a cold.” While certain over-the-counter medications can help alleviate symptoms temporarily, they’re not a cure.
Additionally, “you do not need antibiotics — antibiotics treat bacteria, they do not treat viruses [which] is what the common cold is,” Wardlaw added.
If your illness progresses, talk to your doctor.
“While colds are exceedingly common and typically self-limited, other more serious health problems are also fairly common and may, in some cases, necessitate medical care,” Chung said.
Worrisome symptoms include a fever of 102.2 degrees or higher and shortness of breath, he said.
In these cases, “don’t hesitate to reach out to your health care provider and get checked out, particularly if you are more prone to complications due to age or underlying health conditions,” Chung suggested.
But, for most people, a cold won’t progress to this level. Instead, it will run its course, and you’ll eventually come out the other end.