A sniffle, a sneeze—you know all about the common cold, right? Or do you? We scoured the latest research and talked to experts to dig up the most surprising things you may not have known about catching and recovering from the common cold.
1. It takes about 48 hours to infect you and make you sick.
That scratchy throat and runny nose that’s coming on? Think back to where you were 48 hours ago. Chances are, that’s where you picked up your cold bug. Experts say that it takes about two days for a cold to embed into the lining of your cells and produce symptoms. Baffled by whether you've come down with the flu or with a cold? While no one can predict how an infection will progress—and sometimes even experts are fooled by colds masquerading as the flu—you can use this rule of thumb from Ron Eccles, BSc, PhD, DSc, director of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University in the U.K.: “Cold viruses do not usually cause fever in adults,” he says. “Sudden onset, fever and cough are the best predictors of influenza.”
2. The best cold-fighting weapon may be your tennis shoes.
Your medicine cabinet may be stocked with the latest cold-fighting medicines, but when it comes down to it, experts say the best way to protect yourself isn’t with a pill, but by breaking a sweat. Appalachian State University researchers have studied how the immune system and viruses are affected by exercise, and the findings are fascinating: Any exercise, however limited, is great. The researchers say that if you really want to ward off colds this winter, you’re best off working out at least 5 days per week—but no marathon-training is required. A brisk 30-minute walk 5 times per week does the trick to cold-proof your immune system. “Mild exercise is good as it moves the blood around the body and also moves the immune white cells around to search for infection,” says Dr. Eccles.
3. Late nights could be contributing to your sniffling and sneezing.
How much sleep did you get last night? If it was fewer than seven hours, you’re three times more likely to catch a cold, say researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, whose study was published in a recent issue of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine. It’s also important to use your time in bed wisely—meaning, when you're in bed, sleep. The researchers call it “sleep efficiency.” For instance, study participants who spent less than 92 percent of their time in bed asleep were at least five times more likely to pick up a cold virus than those who fell asleep quicker and stayed asleep longer. To get more shut-eye, sleep experts recommend banishing the TV as well as night lights, which can distract and impede your sleep cycles.
4. A tall glass of orange juice isn't a cold cure-all.
When you start to feel the first signs of a cold coming on, what do you do? If your first response is to load up on OJ in hopes of boosting your body’s vitamin C levels, you might reconsider. A major review of more than 30 studies conducted by researchers at Australian National University and the University of Helsinki say that for the majority of people, vitamin C does nothing to prevent or reduce the symptoms of a cold.
Disappointing, yes. But there’s a caveat. If you’re under a lot of stress, or are putting your body to the test—for example, training for a marathon—a daily dose of 200 mg of vitamin C may reduce your chances of catching a cold by about half. To get more C naturally, load up on these foods: oranges and citrus, of course, and also papaya, broccoli, tomatoes, red peppers and kiwi.
5. There’s a flower that may help fight cold viruses.
You’ve probably heard of echinacea, a plant with a stunning pink flower, which is believed to help boost the immune system. University of Connecticut researchers put the theory to the test recently, and after studying more than 1,600 people, they reported that not only did echinacea cut the chances of catching a cold in half, but also those study participants who took it reduced the duration of their colds by about 1.4 days.
Should you supplement with echinacea? It’s worth a try, says Dr. Eccles. "As it is a natural product, it is not possible to standardize the medicine, so, like buying wine, get the best quality from [herbal supplement makers] who have been in the business for a while.”
6. A cold virus could make you fat.
Could you blame that extra 15 pounds you’ve gained on the cold you got last spring? It may not be a far-fetched idea, according to researchers at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. In their study of children, published in a recent issue of the journal Pediatrics, they found that kids who had been infected by adenovirus 36, a common cold virus that causes typical cold symptoms and sometimes gastrointestinal issues, were, on average, 50 pounds heavier than children who hadn’t been infected by the strain, suggesting that a viral infection may cause excess weight gain. While researchers aren’t implying that all cold viruses—even this particular one—cause lifelong weight problems, it's some extra incentive to stay healthy this season, right?
7. Hot drinks can help zap the symptoms of cold viruses.
Your mom was right—tea and hot soup may be the keys to feeling better when you're hit with a bad cold. According to a study published in a recent issue of the journal Rhinology, researchers in England say that simply sipping a hot beverage can provide immediate and sustained relief from your worst cold symptoms, like coughing, sneezing, runny nose, sore throat and fatigue. The researchers tested hot beverages versus room-temperature drinks and found that the warmth in a cup had soothing, feel-good properties. Your new feel-better-fast remedy: herbal tea with a squeeze of lemon and one teaspoon of honey, which has also been proven to soothe sore throats.
8. An ingredient found in breast milk can make you feel better fast.
It turns out that an ingredient in breast milk (that you can find via supplements—whew!), may help your most intense cold go away. “A derivative of lauric acid, monolaurin, is a fatty acid found naturally in breast milk,” explains Tom Bayne, DC, a practitioner with ChicagoHealers.com. “It is known to decrease symptoms of the flu and fatigue.” You can find monolaurin supplements at any health food store or vitamin shop and at most pharmacies. As with all natural supplements, talk to your doctor about the right dosage and whether there are any drug contraindications to keep in mind.
9. The average person gets 200 colds in his or her lifetime.
According to estimates, by your 75th birthday, you’re likely to have suffered through 200 colds—that’s two years of your life sneezing! And while children typically get between four and eight colds per year, older people get a break from them. Experts believe this is due to the fact that most elderly people have already been exposed to the majority of cold viruses circulating. But, adds Dr. Eccles, a new virus can be devastating to the elderly, often manifesting in upper respiratory illness.
10. Colds are really not that contagious.
We hear so much about the dreaded rhinovirus that most people think a mere handshake with a sick person is going to send them coughing. Not true, say experts. Recent research by the Cardiff University Common Cold Centre found that when healthy people were put in a room with cold sufferers, it was “remarkably difficult” to spread the infection from one person to another. In fact, the cold virus has to have the ideal conditions when hitting your body to infect you. “Colds are not very contagious, and most colds are caught at home from kids and partners from prolonged and close contact,” says Dr. Eccles. In other words, no need to don a mask in public—just use common sense.