The one thing that actually might help you fight a cold—plus a extra strategies, just in case

By By Joe Donatelli and Lauren Mazzo
Updated: November 02, 2018
Photo: Fred Paul/Getty Images

If you smell onions in someone's socks over the next few weeks, do not be alarmed. That person is probably just fighting a cold.

Everyone seems to have a custom "miracle cure" for the common cold, and it seems the more creative the solution, the less bashful they are about sharing. People swear by everything from normal-ish cures (vitamin C, getting fresh air, hydrating, resting, and chicken soup-preferably mom's, of course) to the woo-woo (sex, essential oils, a homeopathic alternative medicine called Oscillococcinum, and coating your feet with Vicks Vapor Rub and wearing a pair of socks overnight) to the downright cray (chopping and eating a raw yellow onion followed by a warm bath or a long shower to open the pores, or wearing socks filled with peeled onion layers).

Is the common cold really so wimpy that it can be defeated by a menthol, socks, and a bubble bath? Luckily, science is here to help. The answer lies in an interesting piece of research by Dr. Bruce Barrett at the University of Wisconsin.

In Barrett's study, cold sufferers were split into four groups-one group was given no pills, a second and third group were each given Echinacea or a placebo but were not told which pill they received, and a fourth group was given Echinacea and was told it was Echinacea. Each participant was asked to rate the effectiveness of the medicinal herb Echinacea.

The results were surprising: The illnesses of people who believed in Echinacea and received pills were considerably shorter and less severe-regardless of whether or not the pills contained Echinacea.

What does that mean? "A positive outlook matters," says Barrett. If someone believes a cold remedy works, it just might. No one knows for sure why. Barrett says that the manner in which the brain stimulates healing mechanisms through positive expectations is not entirely understood. But this certainly helps explain why there is a seemingly endless list of pharmaceuticals, alternative treatments, and quirky home remedies for treating the common cold.

As a practicing family doctor, Barrett strongly encourages the use of non-pharmaceutical cold remedies. That doesn't have to mean popping Echinacea or messing around with essential oils, though. There are a few no-fail practices you can call on to help fight your cold (in addition to that positive mindset, of course):

Drink a lot of water. You probably don't drink enough water when you're healthy-so if you're sick, get chugging. Water not only helps everything in your body function better, but it can help wash away mucus buildup in your nose and throat. Fever increases the amount of water evaporating from your body (night sweats) so you may need to drink even more than usual to combat dehydration. Tossing a spoonful of honey into warm tea can do double duty, helping you hydrate and soothe a sore throat.

Rest. Seriously. Americans aren't taking enough sick days, but that R&R is what's going to actually get you on the road to recovery-not the immune-boosting random turmeric, lemon, and ginger shot you bought from the fancy juice shop. Getting enough sleep not only helps you avoid getting sick, but also improves your body's ability to spot and take-down viruses and bacteria-just read why sleep is your best bet during cold and flu season. While you're at it, take a few days off of those HIIT workouts too; while some movement may make you feel better (thanks, endorphins!), intense exercise can actually compromise your immune system.

Eat to heal. If food is medicine, then every one of your meals should include one of these immune-boosting foods. Other diet must-dos when you're feeling under the weather? Make sure you're getting enough protein, which helps keep your immune system according to one study published in the journal Critical Care Medicine. Also fill your diet with lots of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, since there's some evidence that micronutrient deficiencies are associated with an impaired immune system. And the people who tout chicken soup as a cure aren't that far off: research shows that chicken soup may help your body fight upper respiratory tract infections.

When in doubt, think positive thoughts and follow this five-day guide to getting over your cold. You'll be back up and at it in no time.

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