The common cold and flu have similar symptoms, so it’s easy to mistake one for the other. A cold is usually mild and goes away without treatment. The symptoms may include a runny nose, sneezing, and a headache. Half of patients may also experience a sore throat or cough. If the cough lasts after the other symptoms have cleared up, then bronchitis (chest cold) may be caused by inflammation of the airways in the lungs.
Colds usually last 7-10 days and are more common in the winter and spring months.
Flu (influenza virus) lasts about 5-7 days, and symptoms typically include fatigue, muscle aches, headache, and a fever.
Cold and Flu Pointers
Congestion often feels worse at night, and this can create a vicious cycle of not getting the sleep needed to get over a cold or flu. I’ve found these steps (in this order) help my patients shorten their recovery time, help with insomnia, and decrease their nasal congestion.
- Chicken Soup for Dinner. New research suggests that ingredients in chicken noodle soup may have benefits as a cold remedy including an anti-inflammatory effect for the aches and pains.
- Garlic is believed to have both anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties which may help with congestion related to colds. If taken for 12 weeks during the cold and flu season, research shows it may also decrease the number of colds contracted during the season. Eating raw garlic, sautéing in food, or even inhaling garlic steam can be helpful.
- Vitamin C and Zinc have been shown to help you get over your symptoms faster but may not give immediate relief from the congestion itself.
- Hot Drink. Many cultures have traditionally used the practice of hot drinks and hot soups for colds and flu; however, there is limited research with evidence to back of their use specifically for nasal congestion. There is an interesting study touting that even though there was no improvement in nasal stuffiness between a room-temperature drink and a hot drink, the hot drink group reporter more significant relief from their symptoms. Adding honey or lemon may provide additional relief and help fight infections. Stimulants such as coffee and tea are diuretics and can dehydrate, which makes things worse. Hot water with lemon and herbal teas without caffeine are best. If you have a cold, you should aim for a minimum daily fluid intake of around 11.5 cups for women and 15.5 cups for men. Don’t drink too much right before bed, perhaps one cup to loosen the mucus and help with sleep.
- Hot Shower or Facial Steam. A hot shower can be an excellent way to feel better by directly affecting thinning our mucus. Make sure to close the door to your bathroom so the steam can gather, then take deep breaths to clear up the congestion. Another easy way to get some steam going is to make your own facial steam by pouring hot water into a bowl, cover your head with a towel, and breath in. Be careful not to burn yourself. Try eucalyptus oil in your steam to help with chest congestion and possibly nasal congestion as well.
- Neti Pot. This tea-shaped pot has been used for centuries by yoga and Ayurvedic practitioners in India. This nasal irrigation system is inexpensive, gentle, effective and can clear the nasal passages of mucus and allergens. Make sure you are sterilizing the device and using saltwater (clean source of salt is recommended). The FDA has warned that improper use of Neti Pots can lead to infections from improper use. Using the Neti pot before or after steaming is a great idea.
- Humidifiers increase the humidity of the surrounding air, and dry air can irritate the throat and nasal passages. It may also help drain and thin the mucus in your nose. Research hasn’t shown consistent benefits in treating cold symptoms; however most people feel they provide a lot of relief. You’ll need to clean it regularly to avoid mold and bacterial overgrowth in the machine.
- Essential Oil such as tea tree oil has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, so it may help with sinus congestion. Other studies have been done on other oils such as a combination of peppermint, eucalyptus, oregano, and rosemary with positive results. Essential Oils can be used as a spray, in a diffuser or applied to skin with a carrier oil. Treatment of Upper Respiratory Tract Infections in Primary Care: A Randomized Study Using Aromatic Herbs Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2011;2011:690346 . Also, herbal treatments, notably menthol and eucalyptus oil, may be helpful, specifically utilizing inhaled balms and rubs. Menthol is a derivative of peppermint oil, and menthol products are a good option to try when seeking short-term relief from sinus congestion.
- Use your thumbs to press on the areas at the inside corners of your eyebrows, tender areas around the nose, and sinus areas around the eyes. Press for 30-60 seconds then release and repeat until the pressure is relieved.
- Wet Socks Hydrotherapy Treatment. An old nature cure treatment that alternates hot and cold to create a pumping mechanism that may stimulate your circulation and lymphatics, which in turn is thought to activate the immune system. My patients also tout overall better sleep and less nasal congestion. It only requires one pair of cotton socks and one pair of wool socks. It’s one of my favorite recommendations.
- Pillow Up. Put an extra pillow under your head to help drain your sinuses, also want to try nasal breathing strips to help open the nasal passages.
- My patients enjoy designer music for insomnia challenges. I recommend Barry Goldstein’s Ambiology 6 “Genesis.” Restorative sleep is imperative to allow the immune system to do its job, and it’s the best fighter the body has against pathogens.
- When you’re sick, you may feel more sensitive to fluctuations in light and temperature. Keep your bedroom cool and black-out the outside light so that sleep is not affected.