Sorry, The Common Cold Is Inevitable

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
Now that we're heading into the dark, cold winter months, it's time to start pouring countless hours into researching and trying out weird supplements to ward off and relieve the dreaded common cold. Right? Well, it turns out you might be better off just accepting that you're going to get a cold — and that you'll be okay regardless.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults get at least two colds per year on average. And other estimates suggest we actually get up to five annually. So despite how invincible you may think you are, you're just not going to outrun the common cold forever. Let she who is without a cold throw the first Airborne tablet.

Let's take it back to Health 101 for a sec: A cold is an infection, most often caused by a virus. It affects your upper respiratory system, a.k.a. your nose and throat. So the most common symptoms are a sore throat, stuffy/runny nose, and fatigue. But because there are so many different viruses that can cause colds (and we all have our peculiar ways of reacting to them), exact symptoms may vary.

The common cold is also "self-limiting" which means that, like a TV miniseries, it lasts for a finite amount of time. This is because the unpleasant symptoms we associate with the cold are actually due mostly to our immune system trying to get rid of the infection. Once it's gone, they go, too.

Although having to take time off work to deal with your plugged-up head always sucks, healthy adults (those whose immune systems aren't compromised in some way) are great at surviving colds. So the worry isn't the cold itself; rather, it's the complications that can develop from a particularly difficult-to-beat bout of the illness. For instance, if your sinus tissue becomes too inflamed from all that snot-blowing, your sinuses may end up secreting even more snot, causing a sinus infection. If your lungs become inflamed and infected, too, you can develop bronchitis. These illnesses often require significantly more work to treat (and are even less fun) than your average cold.

It's estimated that Americans spend around $3 billion every year on supplements to prevent and treat colds. Which is kind of wild when you consider that there's little conclusive evidence that any of these remedies work. In a 2013 Cochrane review, researchers went through all the available evidence and found that vitamin C supplementation had no effect on how many colds participants got. However, there was a very mild effect of vitamin C supplements on the duration of colds: At best, all that OJ could cut your cold short by one day, which may or may not mean a lot to you.

Until earlier this year, there was a bit more indication that zinc supplements could help. But the review we were basing our hopes on was withdrawn in April. Zinc is still somewhat promising because we've known for decades that, in lab settings (i.e. test tubes), it can keep the rhinoviruses most often responsible for colds from replicating. But in clinical trials, we haven't seen anything conclusive. And when zinc is taken in high enough doses to see any (moderate at best) cold-busting effects, people also report some pretty unpleasant tummy trouble. Plus, most of the time, zinc tastes gross.

So it may be time to accept that your body is doing most of the anti-cold work already. If you have a favorite over-the-counter remedy that you swear makes you feel better (mine is alternating glasses of tangerine-flavored Emergen-C and mugs of tea with spicy honey), know that you may be experiencing the deceptive — but potentially effective — placebo effect. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

All of this ambiguity leads us back to the fact that the standard cold-busting advice is still the best, even if it's not very exciting. This includes avoiding hanging out with people who are sick, and washing your hands frequently to stave off illness — and to prevent spreading any germs your hands do pick up. But when you are sick, do your best to take it easy, stay hydrated, and know when to kick it up a notch and see your doctor (e.g. when your cold won't go away after a week, or when your fever is over 100.5 degrees). Your doc can help figure out if your cold has progressed to something more serious, and he or she may prescribe antibiotics if your illness seems to have been caused by bacteria rather than a virus.

So yeah, we admit that an MD is your best bet for real cold advice. But know this: We're all going to get a cold at some point, and gulping down grapefruit juice like your life depends on it isn't going to change your chances.

Oh, and please do get a flu shot.
Advertisement