How to get rid of a cold

While there is no fast cure for the common cold, our top tips could help ease symptoms naturally and may even shorten the duration of your cold.

So you’ve succumbed to a cold! Your nose is running, your throat is sore and you’ve a hacking cough – what's to be done? Sadly, there’s no simple cure for the common cold, but read on for some home remedies and top tips that might help shorten or ease your suffering.

Eat something light

A bowl of healthy chicken bone broth with rice, herbs, onions and stock

It’s a long-held belief that if you 'feed a cold, starve a fever' you’ll shorten the duration of your symptoms. Luckily, there's some truth to the claim that you should eat when you have a cold – when we eat we encourage the production of a certain type of immune cell (T helper 1) that helps fight viral infections, so it’s a useful strategy for treating the cold virus. However, it's hard to know what to eat if you've lost your appetite or if you have an upset stomach. Often it's best to stick to light meals such as soups or scrambled eggs to avoid feeling nauseous or uncomfortable.

Try these comforting, light dishes:

Healthy bone broth
Chicken noodle soup
Scrambled eggs with basil, spinach & tomatoes
Carrot & ginger soup
Winter vegetable & lentil soup

Boost zinc levels

A bowl of cashew nuts

Studies suggest that the mineral zinc helps reduce the length and severity of a cold. However, to benefit from its effect you would need to take a zinc supplement as soon as you feel a cold coming on – at least within a day of the symptoms starting. Always see your GP before taking any food supplements. Eating zinc-rich foods may be an effective way of keeping your defences primed – cacao powder and cashews are good sources of zinc as are other nuts, seeds and beans. Studies have suggested that combining zinc with vitamin C could provide even quicker symtom relief.

Try our zinc-rich recipe ideas:

Bircher muesli with apple & banana
Moroccan chickpea soup
Cashew curry
Mexican bean soup with shredded chicken & lime

Soothe with lemon, honey and ginger

A mug of hot lemon tea next to a fresh lemon cut open

For those of us keen to keep our cold cures purely culinary, a honey and lemon hot drink or ginger tea is a comforting classic. Thanks to its syrupy qualities, honey is a great throat soother. Studies investigating respiratory infections in children, with symptoms ranging from a hacking cough and runny nose to fever, found that a single night-time dose of honey can have a small, but effective influence on their cough and help them sleep better. However, honey shouldn't be given to children younger than 12 months.

Lemon is rich in vitamin C and protective bioflavonoids – these are particularly prevalent in its skin, so don't waste the zest. Lemon juice also has anti-bacterial properties, although there are currently limited studies to support its use in the treatment of colds. Ginger, while also tasting delicious, has some interesting health benefits and has been used in traditional medicine throughout history. Active compounds, including gingerols, have meant that ginger has been used to soothe a wide array of ailments from nausea to the common cold, fever and sore throats.

Read more about the health benefits of ginger and discover whether lemon water is really good for you.

Get plenty of rest

A sleepy woman struggling to wake up switching off her alarm clock

We all know getting adequate sleep is essential for physical and mental healt, but there’s also a close link between the immune system response and quality of sleep. Studies have revealed that sleep and circadian rhythm (the natural sleep/wake cycle) have a strong regulatory effect on the immune system, which of course may be a problem if you’re one of the many people involved in shift work. More studies are needed to explain exactly why, but it’s thought that shift workers have an increased risk of viral infections. Scientists are only beginning to fully understand the purpose of sleep and its underlying mechanisms, but lack of sleep is associated with many illnesses, including infection.

If you're unwell, sleep can be difficult, so make sure that you have a comfortable, dark bedroom and try not to consume too much caffeine (present in many over-the-counter cold remedies) to help you sleep. Read more tips on how to get a good night's sleep.

Drink lots of liquids

Drinking plenty of fluids is common advice to treat the common cold for those suffering with a viral infection. Although there’s limited evidence as to why this may be effective, it’s thought hydration levels may promote the action of immune cells.

Eat probiotic and prebiotic foods

A jar of sauerkraut with a spoon taken out

It’s long been known that keeping the gut healthy by eating foods that encourage beneficial bacteria is critical to staying fit and well. In fact more than 60 per cent of our immune defences lie along the mucosal lining of our gut, so keeping it in tip-top condition has to be a first line of defence. One small study showed that children who took a probiotic every day had fewer days off school and had reduced common cold symptoms. Other research suggests that probiotics may help reduce the duration of a cold (by up to two days) and make symptoms less severe. In order to see the benefits, you need to consume probiotic foods every day, so this is definitely a strategy for the longer term. 

Include a variety of probiotic foods regularly in your diet:

Slow cooker bio yogurt
Berry yogurt pots
Simple sauerkraut

Read more about probiotic foods and how to improve gut health, and learn about the health benefits of kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and fermented foods.

Should I take more vitamin C when I have a cold?

Slices of fresh orange on a blue background

Vitamin C has often been cited as a good precaution against catching the common cold. However, studies sugget that this advice is most relevant for people exposed to brief periods of intense physical stress such as marathon runners or those living in very cold environments. So unless you fall into one of these categories you’re unlikely to see more than a modest reduction in the duration of your symptoms.

Instead, eat a plentiful array of fruit and veg, including dark green, leafy veg like chard and spinach, peppers, broccoli, peas, kiwi fruit and citrus. Why not try these vitamin C rich suggestions:

Winter vegetable & lentil soup
Supergreen soup with lentils & pine nuts
Red pepper houmous with crispbread snaps
Fruit & nut breakfast bowl

Read more about essential vitamins and what they do and the health benefits of oranges.

If symptoms persist refer to the NHS for information on over-the-counter medications. If you are concerned about any symptoms or you are elderly, pregnant, suffering from a chronic health condition, or the patient is an infant or baby, refer to your local GP's surgery for guidance.

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This article was published on 8th November 2017.

A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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