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

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What is a cold?

Caused by viruses, the common cold is an infection that affects mainly your nose and throat. Most often it is harmless, although you might not feel too good! Adults may experience two or three colds each year, with babies and children suffering them more often. Typically, most people get over a cold in about seven-10 days. One of the most effective ways to protect yourself and reduce the spread of the viruses that cause colds and other illnesses is to wash your hands regularly.

Read our guide to easing cold symptoms to find out more about:

  • The symptoms of a common cold
  • Why you shouldn’t “feed a cold”
  • How rest supports your immune system
  • Why you need to stay hydrated
  • The soothing effects of honey and ginger
  • How garlic really works against colds
  • What effect zinc has on the length of your cold
  • How eating fermented foods supports immunity
  • Whether extra vitamin C is the answer
  • If it is worth adding lemon to cold ‘cures’
  • Whether steam inhalation works
  • And why you won’t be prescribed antibiotics.

Find out how to win the cold war and, if you’ve got children, how best to support their immune system.

What are common cold symptoms?

Symptoms typically start one-three days after you’ve been exposed to the cold virus, and may include:

More like this
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore or irritated throat
  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Body aches and headache
  • Low grade fever
  • And generally feeling tired and unwell

The majority of people don’t need medical assistance but if your symptoms get worse, you have a fever that lasts more than three days, you have shortness of breath or an intense headache, sore throat or sinus pain contact your healthcare provider for advice.

How to get rid of a cold fast

What works:

1. Eat something light

Bone broth with chicken and vegetables

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; this is because 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

2. Get plenty of rest

how-to-get-rid-of-a-cold-plenty-of-sleep-21cdc37

We all feel better after a good night's sleep because rest is essential for physical and mental health, 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. There's still more for us to learn in this area, 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 what we do know is that a lack of sleep is associated with many illnesses, including an increased likelihood of infection.

If you're unwell, sleep can be difficult, so give yourself the best possible chance by having a comfortable, dark bedroom and avoid too much caffeine, which is present in many over-the-counter cold remedies.

Read more tips on how to get a good night's sleep.

Worth a try:

3. Drink lots of liquids

Drinking plenty of fluids is common advice 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.

4. Soothe with honey and ginger

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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 assessing potential treatments for 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 may 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.

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. Also, check out our pickled ginger recipe.

Read more about the health benefits of ginger.

5. Eat more garlic

Although it could have a preventative effect, potentially decreasing the frequency of colds in adults, there is no evidence that garlic will help you shift a cold once you have one. That said, one study found that supplementing with an aged garlic extract appeared to enhance immune cell function, which may reduce the severity of your symptoms.

6. Boost your zinc levels

how-to-get-rid-of-a-cold-zinc-cashews-c24fa98

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.

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 symptom relief.

Try our zinc-rich recipe ideas:

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

If you’re on prescribed medication or have been diagnosed with a medical condition, it's important to check with your GP before taking supplements. This is because some supplements or nutrients may interact with your medication, be unsafe if you have certain health issues or if you are due to undergo surgery.

7. Eat more fermented foods

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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, 70 per cent of our immune defences lie along the mucosal lining of our gut, so keeping it in tip-top condition has to be our first line of defence.

A 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 similar benefits, aim to consume fermented foods, that contain these beneficial bacteria every day, whether you have a cold or not.

Include a variety of fermented foods regularly in your diet:

Slow cooker bio yogurt
Berry yogurt pots
Simple sauerkraut
Kimchi
Kombucha

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

8. Topping up with vitamin C

how-to-get-rid-of-a-cold-oranges-vitamin-c-30a00d5

Vitamin C is often been cited as a good precaution against catching the common cold. However, studies suggest 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.

For the rest of us, taking vitamin C as a preventative measure may only bring about a modest reduction in the duration of our symptoms.

The best strategy is to 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 hummus with crispbread snaps
Fruit & nut breakfast bowl

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

Old wives tales

9. Adding lemon

A hot drink with lemon, honey and ginger makes a comforting choice but don’t expect too much from the lemon. Although lemon is a rich source of vitamin C and protective compounds called bioflavonoids, and has some anti-bacterial properties, there are sadly limited studies to support its use in the treatment of colds.

Discover whether lemon water is really good for you

10. Clearing nasal passages

There’s no evidence that a nasal saline irrigation or steam inhalation are effective at relieving your cold symptoms.

11. Taking antibiotics

Although many of us hold the view that antibiotics are a cure all, they are not effective against the cold or flu virus.

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.

Enjoyed this? Now read...

How to prevent a cold
Which natural cold remedies actually work?
Will chicken soup really cure your cold?
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Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

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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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