How to Fight Off a Cold or Flu

Three Methods:Supporting Your Body as it FightsTreating the SymptomsPreventing a Cold or Flu

A cold or flu can really make you miserable, but they usually aren’t serious enough to require medical attention. Both are viruses, but the flu generally comes on faster than a cold and has a higher fever. They share similar symptoms including a runny nose, sneezing and sore throat so the same methods will work for fighting both.[1]

Method 1
Supporting Your Body as it Fights

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    Get plenty of rest. A healthy adult should get about 8 hours of sleep at night. However, you might find that you need a lot more if you have a cold or the flu.[2][3]
    • Give in to the urge to take a nap. You might find that you wake up feeling much better.
    • Sleeping allows your body to direct more energy to your immune system, which will help you fight the infection faster.
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    Stay hydrated. Your body loses water during a fever or when producing mucus. Be sure to drink enough so that you are replacing your fluids.[4][5]
    • Good drinks include water, juice, clear broth, or warm lemon water. The juice, broth, and lemon water will also help replenish your electrolytes.
    • Don’t drink alcohol or coffee because they are dehydrating.
    • The best way to avoid dehydration is to drink enough so that you do not become thirsty. If your urine dark or cloudy, you need to drink more.
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    Eat chicken soup. This age-old remedy helps because it has anti-inflammatory properties and reduces congestion.[6]
    • The nourishment will also help you keep your strength for combating the infection.
    • The salt in the soup will top up your electrolytes.
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    Stay warm. If you have a fever, even a low one, it may make you feel cold. This happens because your body temperature is higher relative to the temperature around you.
    • Put extra blankets on your bed or use a hot water bottle. However, don't overdo it with blankets. Over bundling, especially for babies, can actually increase your temperature and make you feel worse.
    • Keeping warm will reduce shivering and let your body direct more energy to your immune system.
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    Keep the air moist. Using a cool-mist humidifier or a vaporizer will make it easier to breathe.[7]
    • Using it at night will help you sleep better because you will be less congested and will cough less.
    • If you don't have a commercial humidifier, you can make one by putting a pot of water on the radiator or handing a wet towel on a clothing dryer. The water will evaporate slowly into the air.

Method 2
Treating the Symptoms

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    Reduce the stuffiness in your nose with saline drops. Because it is just salt water, it’s safe, even for children.[8]
    • Using a dropper, squeeze a few drops into each nostril. This will help reduce mucus and dry it out.
    • Saline drops are available without a prescription and can be made at home.
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    Gargle with warm saltwater. This will reduce throat discomfort.[9]
    • Dissolve up to a half teaspoon of salt in a glass of water and gargle.
    • Spit the water out when you are done.
    • Because salt water is safe, you can do it as often as you want.
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    Reduce congestion with over-the-counter decongestant nasal sprays or drops. These medications should only be used for a few days. When used for longer, they can cause inflammation of the tissues in your nose, which will make your symptoms worse.[10]
    • Insert the dropper into the stuffy nostril and release a few drops or spray. You should get relief almost instantly.
    • Do not give them to children.
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    Treat a fever or pain with over-the-counter pain medications. This will help ease a fever, headache, sore throat, or joint pain.[11]
    • Common medications contain acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen or aspirin.
    • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and consult a doctor before giving medications to children. Many over-the-counter medications should not be given to young children.
    • Children and teenagers should not take aspirin. It can cause a serious condition called Reye’s syndrome.
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    Loosen phlegm or mucus with expectorants. Cough and cold medicines use an expectorant called guaifenesin. It helps to loosen phlegm or mucus in your lungs.[12]
    • Drinking lots of water will also help to loosen phlegm.
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    Suppress dry coughing with a cough syrup. This will only reduce coughing, it won’t actually make the infection go away. But if coughing keeps you awake, a cough syrup with the ingredient dextromethorphan might help you sleep.[13]
    • When you cough, that is your body trying to expel the pathogens and irritants. By suppressing the cough, you are preventing that from happening. Talk to your doctor to find out whether cough syrups are right for you.
    • Do not give cough syrups to children younger than four. For older children, follow the instructions on the bottle. If there are no instructions specific to your child’s age, consult a doctor.
    • Some cough syrups have acetaminophen or other cold or fever/pain reducers in them. This means that it is important not to take them and other medications with acetaminophen at the same time. You could accidentally overdose.
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    Get antiviral medications. If you are severely ill with the flu, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral.[14]
    • Common antivirals are oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza).
    • These drugs don’t actually shorten the duration of the infection by very long. Usually it’s only about a day or two shorter.
    • The side effects may be more serious than the original flu. Oseltamivir may rarely cause delirium and self-harm in teenagers. Zanamivir cannot be taken by people with respiratory conditions. They may also cause vomiting.
    • Some flu strains are becoming resistant.
    • For people with certain medical conditions such as asthma, taking antiviral medications for the flu may be more beneficial.
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    See a doctor if you are showing signs of a severe infection. If you are an adult with the following symptoms or if your symptoms are getting worse or are not getting better by 5-7 days, you should be checked:[15]
    • A fever that is 103 F or greater. This is 39.4 in Celsius.
    • A fever with sweating and chills
    • Coughing up colored phlegm or phlegm with blood
    • Swollen glands
    • Bad sinus pain
    • Trouble breathing
    • Chest pain or a stiff neck
    • Being unable to drink enough fluids or vomiting frequently
    • Worsening of any chronic medical conditions such as asthma, cancer or diabetes
    • Are elderly
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    Take your child to the doctor if necessary. Children have weaker immune systems and are more likely to have complications. Bring your child to be checked if he or she has:[16]
    • A fever of 100.4 F or higher when four months old or younger. This is 38 in Celsius.
    • A fever of 104 F (40 C)
    • Signs of dehydration such as being listless or very sleepy, urinating less than 3 times a day, not drinking enough fluids, or dry eyes and mouth
    • A fever for over 24 hours for a child younger than two
    • A fever for over three days in a child over two
    • Vomiting
    • Abdominal pain
    • Extreme sleepiness
    • Severe headaches
    • A stiff neck
    • Problems breathing
    • Crying for a long time. Especially in children that are too young to say what’s wrong.
    • Earaches
    • A cough that doesn’t go away

Method 3
Preventing a Cold or Flu

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    Get a flu vaccine every year. It will boost your immune system against the strains that doctors expect to be the most common in the coming year.[17]
    • It isn’t perfect, but it can really reduce how often you are sick.
    • You can get the vaccine as an injection or as a nasal spray.
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    Wash your hands frequently. This will prevent you from infecting yourself with viruses that you may have gotten from shaking hands, touching handrails, etc.
    • Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are also effective.
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    Reduce your exposure by staying away from crowds. If you are in a small, confined space with lots of people, you are increasing the chances that at least one person near you will be carrying something. This includes:[18]
    • Schools
    • Offices
    • Public transportation
    • Auditoriums
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    Boost your immune system with a healthy diet. By eating well, you can give your immune system the energy it needs to quickly fight infections.[19]
    • Get enough vitamins by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables. Excellent sources of vitamins include apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, broccoli, peas, beans, spinach, cauliflower, squash, and asparagus.
    • Get enough fiber with whole-grain breads and grains like bran, oatmeal, and whole-wheat.
    • Supply your body with protein through lean meats, poultry, beans, fish and eggs. Avoid fatty meats.
    • Avoid pre-packaged processed foods. They are more likely to be high in sugar, salt, and fat. They will give you calories, without also providing the nutrients you need.
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    Manage stress. Stress can lower your immune system and make you more susceptible to infections. You can reduce stress by:[20]
    • Exercising. Try to exercise at least five times per week. This will cause your body to release endorphins and help you relax.
    • Getting enough sleep. Most adults need about 8 hours a night. Some people need as many as 9 or 10 hours.
    • Meditation
    • Yoga
    • Massage
    • Having close relationships that provide social support. Talking will make you feel less alone.
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    Try natural remedies. The effectiveness of these methods is controversial. Some studies say they help, others say they don’t. However, these are some frequently used remedies:[21]
    • Taking vitamin C when you first start getting symptoms may shorten the length of time that you are sick.
    • Echinacea may help the immune system. It is available in multiple forms, including tablets, liquids, and teas. Discuss it with your doctor if you are taking prescription medications.
    • Zinc may help if it is taken right when symptoms start. But do not use zinc nasal sprays. They can damage your sense of smell.
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    Avoid smoking or exposure to smoke. Smoking weakens your body's ability to fight off illnesses including the flu and the common cold. By quitting smoking or avoiding smoke exposure, you will help to keep your body healthy.[22]


  • Do not take any medications, supplements, or herbal remedies without consulting a doctor if you are pregnant, have medical problems, or take other medications. Also consult a doctor before giving them to a child.
  • Always read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Even over-the-counter medications can interact with each other. Don’t take more than one at a time. Also, taking multiple medications with the same active ingredient at the same time can lead to an overdose.

Sources and Citations

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Categories: Colds and Viruses