Cold got a hold of you? Make sure you’re working with—not against—your sickness by avoiding these seven things.

By Karen Asp
November 11, 2019

Try as you might, it’s not always easy to dodge colds. The average American, after all, gets two to three colds a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most colds last only three to five days, but you can still be congested or have a cough for up to two weeks, says Tina Q. Tan, MD, an infectious disease specialist and medical director of the International Patient Services Program at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

The trouble is, colds can linger longer or get worse as a result of lifestyle habits and behaviors, including those you might otherwise have thought were healthy. Below, experts dish on seven of these things that could be making you feel worse or prolonging your recovery from the common cold.

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Mistake #1: Not backing off your intensity at the gym.

Exercise can be a mental godsend when you’re sick, lifting your spirits at the very least. But don’t take this as permission to give it your all when you’re sick, or you could make yourself worse. If you have a runny nose or mild nasal congestion, you have permission to exercise with one caveat: “Keep the intensity mild to moderate,” Dr. Tan says. However, if you have a fever, cough, chest congestion, or stomach upset, hold off on all exercise until those symptoms resolve.

Mistake #2: Telling yourself you’re not sick.

If you’ve always subscribed to the mind-over-matter philosophy when it comes to recovering from colds, give it up. Pretending you’re not sick might not encourage you to dial back your activities, which means you could overexert yourself, thus making symptoms worse and delaying recovery. Worse? “You’re exposing others to your illness if you to go to work or the gym when you’re sick,” Dr. Tan says. Your body really does know best, so listen to it and give it the rest it needs. And by all means, if you have a high fever, vomiting, upset stomach, or severe cough or nasal congestion with a significant runny nose, stay home.

Mistake #3: Skimping on sleep.

Sleep might sink to the bottom of your regular to-do list—the CDC reports that one in three Americans don’t get the sleep they need—but when you’re sick, sleep becomes even more critical. “Inadequate sleep can reduce the function of the immune system and prolong recovery from colds,” says Linda Anagewa, MD, a physician with PlushCare in Alea, Hawaii. The problem is, cold symptoms like coughing and congestion can keep you from logging adequate sleep, which is why she recommends using over-the-counter medications like antihistamines, Tylenol, ibuprofen, and decongestants to sleep better.

But do note: “Sleep may be more important for cold prevention than cure,” she adds. In one clinical study, individuals who slept under five hours a night were almost three times more likely to develop a cold than those who slept over seven hours per night.

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Mistake #4: Enjoying a few cocktails.

Forget the myth that alcohol kills all germs, therefore it’s OK to indulge. When you’re under the weather, avoid all alcohol. Why? “Alcohol directly suppresses your immune system and tends to be dehydrating, thus delivering a one-two punch to your immune system and prolonging your illness,” says Richard Burruss, MD, a physician with PlushCare in Oceanside, Calif. Alcohol can also interfere with your sleep, which, again, is a crucial part of recovery. Even if you sip your grandmother’s favorite cold remedy of whisky, lemon, and honey, you might feel better in the short run, but it’ll do nothing to shorten the course of your cold. Bottom line? Put the happy hours on hold until you’re 100 percent well.

Mistake #5: Letting stress go unmanaged.

Chronic stress plus sickness is a recipe for disaster. “Chronic physical or psychological stress can prolong illness and recovery by the production of stress hormones, which may affect the immune system,” says Dr. Tan, adding that mild stress doesn’t usually have as much of an impact. When you’re seriously stressed, you force your immune system to work harder, which makes it difficult for it to fight that cold. Try to rest as much a possible and engage in activities that calm you—for instance, meditating, playing with your pet, reading or watching movies—to quell that stress and give your body time to heal.

Mistake #6: Overusing decongestants.

Decongestants can certainly help make you feel better, even help you sleep better, which might shorten the course of your cold, Dr. Burruss says. However, using a nasal decongestant for longer than one or two days could spell trouble. “When used beyond three days, topical decongestant nasal sprays can cause rebound or worsening congestion,” Dr. Anagewa says.

Mistake #7: Falling short on your fluid needs.

Hydration becomes even more important when you’re sick, and when it comes to choosing the right fluids to drink, the general rule of thumb is to sip on something thin and clear. Water, tea, and broth-based soups all work wonders and have science to back them. “Studies confirm that they shorten the duration and severity of the infection,” Dr. Burruss says. They help thin out secretions your body naturally makes during a cold, and when those secretions and mucus are thinner, they’re easier to clear, which will make you feel better. On the flip side, liquids that aren’t clear (like dairy-based fluids) will tend to result in thicker secretions, so avoid those. Want to make this strategy go further? Dr. Burruss also suggests warming up any liquids before sipping: The steam and heat will help clear mucus, resulting in more open nasal passages.

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