From proper hand washing to getting enough sleep, here’s how you can avoid getting sick.
When a cold takes over your body, it can seem like you’re at the mercy of the virus when it comes to how long it will last. “The common cold is a viral infection of your throat and nose, also known as your upper respiratory tract. Many types of viruses can cause the common cold, but the most common culprit is rhinovirus,” says Adiba Khan, M.D., a family physician at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital.
A runny nose, sore throat, cough, congestion, mild body aches and headaches, sneezing, and low-grade fever can leave you feeling exhausted before your symptoms start to clear up. Not to mention, a cold can feel a lot like COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
But a true cold is typically harmless, even though it can take up to two weeks to start feeling better, explains Deborah S. Clements, M.D., a family physician at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital.
The best thing you can do to feel healthy during the colder months? Stop a cold from taking over your body in the first place. In fact, there are a bevy of ways you can prevent colds and shorten their length. Here’s exactly what you can do fight them off all season long, so you can save those sick days for something more fun.
1. Crank up the humidifier.
Low humidity dries out your nasal passages, making it harder to trap and eliminate the micro-bugs that settle in your sinuses, eventually leading to a cold. The fix? Invest in a humidifier and keep it running when the air starts to feel dry.
“A humidifier may help to keep the mucous membranes moist. Dry mucous membranes in the nose inhibit your body’s ability to trap germs as they enter your system,” says Amber Tully, M.D., a family medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic.
2. Load up on vitamin D.
Research shows that people who don’t get enough vitamin D are much more likely to suffer from an upper respiratory infection—causing a cough, scratchy throat, or stuffy nose—than those who load up on the sunshine vitamin, potentially because your cells depend on D to activate their immune responses. “Some studies have shown that supplementing with 400 international units of vitamin D per day may prevent respiratory infections,” says Dr. Khan.
Currently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggest that most adults aim for at least 600 IUs per day, but some organizations recommend much more than that. Getting enough vitamin D through your diet alone is tough (you can find it in foods like salmon, beef, egg yolks, fortified milk and orange juice, cheese, and mushrooms), so if you suspect you’re low, talk to your doctor about finding a supplement that works for you and your needs.
3. Keep your hands clean—and away from eyes, nose, or mouth.
Even if you don’t notice it, you likely touch your face a lot. In fact, one small 2008 study found that the participants touched their faces an average of 16 times per hour. That’s a major no-no during cold and flu season: When you come in contact with a virus—through another person or an infected surface—it can enter your system if your hands aren’t properly cleaned, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Viruses also spread by skin-to-skin contact, such as a handshake,” says Dr. Clements.
So, maintain a hands-off policy. “This prevents germs on your hands from being transferred into your mucous membrane (nose and mouth) and getting you sick,” says Dr. Tully.
While you’re at it, make sure you’re washing your hands the right way. Use soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds (get between your fingers and underneath your nails!), says the CDC. Opt for hand sanitizer (like these travel-size bottles from Purell) if you’re in a pinch.
4. Disinfect your phone.
Think of all the places you put your phone down during the day: the kitchen counter, a bathroom stall, your restaurant table—talk about a germ-fest.
In fact, a 2012 University of Arizona study found that cell phones may carry 10 times the amount of bacteria than toilet seats.
To disinfect your devices, Apple suggests using a Lysol or Clorox disinfecting wipe. Just be sure to shut down your phone, squeeze out any excess liquid (you don’t want a pool of the stuff sitting on your screen), and dry it off with a soft lint-free cloth. Keep in mind that while bleach is great for banishing viruses, products containing the substance might damage your phone. If you have a hard time finding cleaning wipes near you, follow this guide on how to disinfect your phone using rubbing alcohol.
5. Find some time to relax.
Feeling on edge? Feeling run-down can actually pave the way for a cold, since stress causes your body to pump out excess cortisol, a hormone that can weaken your immune system’s ability to fight infection, says Dr. Tully,
So make winding down a priority: Take up yoga, try meditation, go for a daily stroll through nature, or prioritize some time after work to make dinner with your family—anything that helps you shake off a long day will help.
6. Get plenty of sleep.
A good snooze is key when it comes to preventing colds. In one JAMA Internal Medicine study, researchers gave 153 healthy men and women nasal drops containing rhinovirus and tracked their sleep habits. They found that people who regularly got less than seven hours of sleep were three times more likely to come down with a cold than those who slept eight hours or more each night. The National Sleep Foundation recommends aiming for at least 7 to 9 hours per night. Can’t seem to doze off? Check out these 100 ways to sleep better every night.
7. Reach for zinc.
Research suggests that zinc can actually decrease the growth of viruses, says Dr. Clements. Plus, taking zinc (typically in the form of zinc lozenges or zinc gluconate nasal sprays) seems to reduce the duration and severity of symptoms right after they come on, according to the NIH.
“Although the proper dosing is unclear at this time, studies have shown a benefit only at daily doses greater than 75 milligrams,” says Dr. Clements. The NIH suggests most adults need much less than that to meet their daily needs, so just go for foods rich in zinc, rather than a supplement (unless you talk to your doc about it first). Meat, tofu, oysters, and lentils are all great sources of the mineral.
8. Label your drinking glass.
“When a family member has a cold, try to use disposable glasses or label glasses. This can help to prevent accidental spread of the virus,” says Dr. Khan. And be extra careful when it comes to sharing objects that can get contaminated by a family member who is sick, especially amid COVID-19, such as telephones, towels, or utensils.
9. Power up with probiotics.
Not all bacteria are bad—the good kind of bugs in your gut, found in probiotic foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kombucha, might help support your immune system. After all, a large portion of your immune system can be found right in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
One 2014 study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport actually found that rugby players who took a probiotic supplement experienced far fewer colds and GI infections than those who popped a placebo.
More research needs to be done to confirm that probiotics can truly keep viruses away, but studies suggest that the good bugs seem to be beneficial when symptoms hit, too. For instance, in a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that even though college students taking probiotics or a placebo caught colds at a similar rate, those taking probiotics experienced less intense symptoms (like a stuffy nose or sore throat) for a shorter amount of time.
10. Wear a face mask.
You should be doing this anyway, per recommendations from the CDC. Wearing a face mask is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as other respiratory infections like a cold. Not only does it protect those around you, but research shows that a face mask helps protect the wearer, too.
Viruses, including those that cause a cold, flu, or COVID-19, typically spread from an infected person to others through the air after a cough or sneeze. When everyone wears a mask, we protect one another from our potentially infected respiratory droplets.
What’s more, “studies demonstrate that cloth mask materials can also reduce wearers’ exposure to infectious droplets through filtration, including filtration of fine droplets and particles less than 10 microns,” a research brief from the CDC states, noting that “multiple layers of cloth with higher thread counts have demonstrated superior performance compared to single layers of cloth with lower thread counts.”
11. Get the flu vaccine.
While the cold and flu are caused by very different viruses, they can feel awfully similar when it comes to symptoms. However, the flu will hit you harder and can have risky complications, especially if you already have a weakened immune system. The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to get the flu shot every year, since the circulating viruses constantly change. The CDC recommends getting the flu shot (or nasal spray) as soon as the vaccine is available, ideally before October.
The Bottom Line: Prevention Really Is The Best Medicine
But don’t freak out if you do get sick—most adults get at least one or two colds every year. Just keep an eye on how long it lasts: “If you’re having high fevers or persistent symptoms, be sure to see your doctor to make sure that nothing else is going on,” says Dr. Clements.
After all, it’s more important than ever to get tested for COVID-19 if you think you may have been exposed to the virus. If you do happen to have a confirmed case of coronavirus rather than a cold, your doctor will guide you on the next best steps depending on the severity of your symptoms.
The watching, interacting, and participation of any kind with anything on this page does not constitute or initiate a doctor-patient relationship with Dr. Farrah®. None of the statements here have been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The products of Dr. Farrah® are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information being provided should only be considered for education and entertainment purposes only. If you feel that anything you see or hear may be of value to you on this page or on any other medium of any kind associated with, showing, or quoting anything relating to Dr. Farrah® in any way at any time, you are encouraged to and agree to consult with a licensed healthcare professional in your area to discuss it. If you feel that you’re having a healthcare emergency, seek medical attention immediately. The views expressed here are simply either the views and opinions of Dr. Farrah® or others appearing and are protected under the first amendment.
Dr. Farrah® is a highly experienced Licensed Medical Doctor certified in evidence-based clinical nutrition, not some enthusiast, formulator, or medium promoting the wild and unrestrained use of nutrition products for health issues without clinical experience and scientific evidence of therapeutic benefit. Dr. Farrah® has personally and keenly studied everything she recommends, and more importantly, she’s closely observed the reactions and results in a clinical setting countless times over the course of her career involving the treatment of over 150,000 patients.
Dr. Farrah® promotes evidence-based natural approaches to health, which means integrating her individual scientific and clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research. By individual clinical expertise, I refer to the proficiency and judgment that individual clinicians acquire through clinical experience and clinical practice.
Dr. Farrah® does not make any representation or warranties with respect to the accuracy, applicability, fitness, or completeness of any multimedia content provided. Dr. Farrah® does not warrant the performance, effectiveness, or applicability of any sites listed, linked, or referenced to, in, or by any multimedia content.
To be clear, the multimedia content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read or seen in any website, video, image, or media of any kind. Dr. Farrah® hereby disclaims any and all liability to any party for any direct, indirect, implied, punitive, special, incidental, or other consequential damages arising directly or indirectly from any use of the content, which is provided as is, and without warranties.