Few things can ruin your month like a nasty cold or flu. Even a mild bout of the sniffles can throw a wrench into your daily routine (not to mention your workout), while a full-blown case of the flu can sideline you for weeks with a fever, chills, and a hellish case of grouchiness.
But unlike bacterial infections, viruses like colds and influenza are only combatted by the body’s immune system. The best way to fight them off, therefore, is to be your immune system’s best ally—while taking care of the symptoms that make life so miserable.
“With the cold, the best thing we can do is to treat the symptoms,” says Donald Ford, M.D., a family medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic.
Those remedies all center around three basic ingredients: Getting rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and making sure you have electrolytes or salt. “Your body is fighting the virus by sending antibodies and trying to wash the infection away,” Ford says. “Your job is to make sure the body has enough fluid to fight the virus.”
One old saying that holds true: An ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure. “Diet, exercise, and routinely taking care of your body—maintaining good health in general—will help you avoid bad consequences of a cold or influenza,” says Dr. Pritish Tosh, M.D., an Infectious Disease Specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and a member of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group.
Speaking of prevention, there’s one simple way to stave off the flu: Get your flu shot. “The flu shot not only helps reduce your risk of getting influenza, but also helps prevent the people around you from getting influenza—older people, or people with weakened immune systems,” Tosh says.
But if you still fall ill, try these home cold and flu remedies with proven benefits for your body. And remember: If you feel sicker than normal or you’re noticing unusual symptoms, get thee to a doctor right away.
1. Wash up
It seems basic, but few daily habits help prevent the cold and flu better than regular hand-washing, especially if you interact with lots of people, commute on public transportation, or work with sick people. “Be very careful about washing your hands,” Ford says.
That especially applies when you’re sick. Just because you’re already sick doesn’t mean you can’t get any sicker—or share your germs with healthy people who’d rather not have them, thank you very much.
2. Drink some tea
“People talk about hot tea, hot tea with lemon, hot tea with lemon and honey, and those are all good home remedies,” Ford says. “They soothe the throat and hydrate your body.”
If possible, choose naturally non-caffeinated herbal teas over green or black teas—not because the herbal content has any health benefit, but because caffeine (however mild it may be in tea) has a dehydrating effect.
“If you drink a caffeinated beverage, you lose a lot of that fluid through urination. It’s not a big effect—you’d really have to drink a lot of black tea to dehydrate yourself—but you’re not going to hydrate yourself. It doesn’t necessarily do you any good.”
3. Have some coffee—but choose decaf
When you’re feeling miserable and just trying to fight through the day, it can be tempting to lean even harder on your daily caffeine fix. But while a jolt of caffeine might help you feel more awake, it’s going to be counterproductive in the long run.
“I’d stay away from things that have a lot of caffeine,” Tosh says. “If a drink has too much caffeine, it’ll dehydrate you.”
And while one cup in the morning won’t hurt, make sure to chase it with non-caffeinated drinks throughout the day, Ford adds. “If you drink a caffeinated beverage, you lose a lot of that fluid through urination. It’s not a big effect—you’d really have to drink a lot of black tea to dehydrate yourself—but you’re not going to hydrate yourself. It doesn’t necessarily do you any good.
4. Call in sick
It’s a modern badge of honor when someone shows up at work early, slogs through crunch time, and stays late—all with a cold. So let us be the first to say it (repeatedly, if necessary): Stay home, dude!
Tosh says, “rest, drink fluids, and stay home until you don’t have a fever for at least 24 hours.” That bit of advice about rest? It’s a big one. Your immune system needs all the help it can get, and that means getting plenty of sleep.
What’s more: You may get your coworkers sick—and that won’t look very good on your quarterly review, buddy.
5. Gargle with warm salt water
Runny noses and stuffy sinuses are already bad, but the accompanying sore throat can make colds utterly unbearable. One solution? Gargle with warm salt water.
“If you coat the back of the throat with a warm saline solution, it encourages its hydration,” Ford says. That salty irrigation can help wash the infection away.
6. Have some chicken soup
Chicken soup is an oldie-but-goodie, and the medical consensus is that it will actually help you recover from a cold. “Chicken soup is actually quite good,” Tosh says. “Not that it has any medicinal qualities, but it has some fluids, calories, and some salt. These are the types of things people need when they have colds.”
Ford agrees: “There’s been a lot of effort scientifically to understand whether chicken soup is a myth or not. We know chicken soup contains a lot of good things—namely water and electrolytes. And it’s warm and presumably salty, which can soothe the throat.”
7. Cut back on the booze
Sorry to cramp your happy-hour style—if the runny nose and bloodshot eyes haven’t done that already—but you probably don’t want to drink too much when you’re sick with a cold. Old-school cold remedies involving booze, like your granny’s prescription of a shot of bourbon before bed, “may actually make things worse,” Tosh says. “Alcohol will dehydrate you, and it’ll do the exact opposite of what you want to happen while you’re sick.”
That said, you don’t need to become a complete teetotaller. As with caffeine, a little alcohol is manageable for your body. “A shot won’t necessarily hurt, but a couple of cocktails will definitely dehydrate you,” Ford says.
8. Fill up on healthy foods
Some folk cold remedies involve fasting. (There’s an old myth about colds that goes something like “feed a cold, starve a fever.”) But “that has no truth whatsoever,” Ford says. “When you’re sick, you should eat when you’re hungry,” he says. “If your body is sending signals that it needs energy, it probably does.”
That’s not to say you should gorge on cheesecake, however. When you’re sick, your body needs all the nutrients it can get—so be sure to focus on nutritious food that will fuel your immune system and get you back on your feet.
9. Make sure you get some electrolytes
As with hangover cures, effective cold remedies pack lots of electrolytes. “Electrolyte solutions, just like salt water, will help your body retain some of the water,” Ford says.
Less effective, though, are things like Vitamin C, Echinacea, or zinc. While they may be common ingredients in products designed to ward off illness, the scientific evidence in favor of them is thin at best. “Mega-doses of Vitamin C might sound like it’s a reasonable approach, [but] there’s no evidence it actually helps,” Ford says. “We can fool ourselves sometimes. If you take a pill with a glass of water, that’ll help because the water is hydrating.”
Tosh adds: “Unless you’re suffering from scurvy, then excess Vitamin C probably isn’t helpful. If you’re drinking orange juice, it will help with fluids and sugars, not because of the Vitamin C.”
10. Get some fresh air
“If you’re sitting in a hot, stuffy room and you get a blast of cold, fresh air, it’ll shrink your mucus membranes,” Ford says—and that means potentially relieving yourself of some stuffiness and a runny nose.
That doesn’t mean you should throw yourself into a snowbank, however. “You need to balance that with what you might potentially do to yourself if you get too cold,” he says.” And while it’s impossible to get sick just from being in the cold—you need to come into contact with the virus first—subjecting yourself to nasty weather isn’t going to help anything.
11. Keep up your gym routine if you can
Working out with a cold might make you feel more worn down, but as long as you’re the type to regularly exercise, keeping up with your workout schedule probably won’t hurt your body’s cold-fighting ability, Ford says. (If you have the flu, on the other hand, stay away from the gym—you’ll just be putting your fellow gym-goers at risk of catching the virus.)
What will hurt, however, is failing to hydrate after your workout. If you manage to battle through your cold symptoms with a gym session, be sure to guzzle down all the water you sweated out and then some. Your body needs it.
12. Get steamy
Ever notice you feel better after taking a hot shower? That’s because the hot water and steam will help hydrate your body—and often helps to clear up your sinuses.
“Wet, warm air is going to have all the positive effects of hydration,” Ford says.
13. Use an astringent
What do freshly sliced onions, Vick’s VapoRub, and eucalyptus oil have in common? They all serve as vasoconstrictors, Ford says, meaning they help to shrink the blood vessels in your nasal passages. That won’t necessarily fight the virus, but it does help soothe your throat and sinuses, helping to relieve that stuffed-up or scratchy feeling colds often bring.
Ford recommends filling up a bowl with hot water, adding a few drops of eucalyptus essential oil, and then standing over it, allowing the steam to rise into your face and nasal passages. If it helps and isn’t causing any irritation, you can try it a couple times a day.