First, the bad news: There's no actual cure for cold or flu. But on the bright side, these viruses do tend to clear up pretty quickly--within 3 to 10 days, in most cases. While you can't kill the bugs with medications, you can treat the symptoms so you feel more comfortable and prevent complications, like bronchitis or pneumonia. Here, 11 things you should do at the first sign of sniffles and sneezes.
*Excerpted from Don't Get Sick: A Panic-Free Pocket Guide to Living in a Germ-Filled World!
Is it cold or flu?
Cold symptoms are mostly respiratory--sore throat, coughing, sneezing, runny nose. The flu can have these symptoms too, but it's much more likely to produce fever and chills, along with headache, muscle aches, and fatigue. "It comes on more suddenly, and the symptoms tend to be much worse than with a cold," says Christopher Czaja, MD, an infection control officer for the National Jewish Health Hospital in Denver. Knowing the difference is important because if you suspect you have the flu, you can take an antiviral medication, like Tamiflu, which can shave a few days off seasonal or swine flu if started within the first 2 days of getting sick. Tamiflu is available by prescription only, so if think it's the flu call your doctor--fast!
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Rest and hydrate
Take Mom's advice: Get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids, Dr. Czaja advises. "Drinking water helps thin mucus secretions in the lungs." What about that old standby, orange juice? It's fine as a fluid, but don't expect any bonus benefit from the vitamin C it contains. "Scientific studies have yet to prove it's effective for preventing or treating respiratory infections," Dr. Czaja says.
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Sip hot tea
All teas contain theophylline, which is a natural bronchodilator. Choose the brew you find most tasty. Add a little honey if you wish, says Gwen Huitt, MD, director of the Adult Infection Disease Unit at National Jewish Health Hospital. Honey coats the throat to soothe irritation and is rich in infection-fighting antioxidants. It also spurs saliva production, which can help thin out mucus. (Make the ultimate cup of tea with this quick how-to.)
Take an OTC med
Hit the pharmacy to find a med that treats your specific aches and pains. A pain reliever like aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen can provide relief from fever and body aches, says Dr. Czaja. For a cough, look for a product that contains dextromethorphan, a suppressant that can temporarily stop cough symptoms. For congestion, look for guaifenesin, an expectorant that can help dislodge mucus. Pseudoephedrine is a very effective decongestant (it helps unplug stuffy noses by constricting blood vessels).
Pick the right natural remedy
If you feel symptoms coming on, zinc or Cold-fX (a supplement that contains ginseng) could help shorten symptoms, research shows. Your body needs the mineral zinc to produce germ-fighting white blood cells, but don't overdo it. More than 50 mg a day can actually backfire and suppress your immune system. Ginseng bolsters levels of white blood cells and crucial immune system proteins called interleukins.
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Sip some chicken soup
This cold remedy has been used for centuries--with good reason. Cysteine, an amino acid released from chicken during cooking, is chemically similar to a common bronchitis drug. The soup thins mucus and calms the symptoms of a stuffed-up nose and wracking cough. A study published in Chest shows that even most supermarket brands help block inflammatory cells, leading to reduced cold symptoms.
Have a steamy moment
"Inhaling warm, moist air can help thin out and loosen mucus," Dr. Czaja says. Make a mini steam bath by leaning your head over a bowl of hot water, being careful not to scald yourself. Or indulge in an extra-long shower.
Cover your mouth
Cough and sneeze into a tissue, then toss it. If you don't have one handy, use your shirtsleeve. As many as 19,500 flu viruses can be expelled in a single cough, so this is the best way to avoid spreading the infection around your house or workplace. If you expel thick, green mucus, you probably have a bacterial infection in your airways (in addition to your cold or flu virus). Call your doctor, who may prescribe antibiotics to clear up the secondary infection.
Call in sick
If you have the flu or a bad cold, take time off to recover at home. You could infect someone who has a weaker immune system than you and may develop much more serious symptoms. "And if you get stressed while you have the flu, your symptoms can get worse," says Philip Tierno, PhD, director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University. Unfortunately, you're contagious until you've been free of fever without medication for 24 hours. (Find out if you should you skip your workout when you're sick.)
Keep your distance from new germs
Once you're on the mend, reduce your chances of catching another bug by avoiding contact with anyone who has a cold or the flu. Not possible? The next best thing is to wash your hands constantly and thoroughly, or use a hand sanitizer if you're not close to a sink.
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In case of emergency
If you have any of the following signs and symptoms, which could indicate a serious case or complications, call your doctor:
• Fever above 101.5 F
• Shaking chills
• A cough with phlegm that doesn't improve or gets worse
• Bloody mucus or phlegm
• Shortness of breath with normal daily activities
• Chest pain when you breathe or talk
• Inability to keep down food or liquids
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