Wondering how to get rid of a cold fast? That time of year is here again. The cold weather has brought with it a cascade of sniffles, coughs, sore throats, and headaches.
While many of us take to the chemist to find a remedy or start stockpiling foods high in vitamin C, a few simple swaps could be all you need - and help you save a few pounds in the process. Not only that, many of the classic cold remedies are in the bathroom and kitchen cupboard already, so you don't even need to leave the house - or order from an app - to get what you need.
These simple fixes are backed by chemists, doctors, physiotherapists, and others within the profession as tried-and-true ways to get rid of a cold fast.
How to get rid of a cold fast
How to soothe a sore throat
1. Gargle with salt water
It may be an age-old remedy but there's a reason it exists. It may not sound appealing but "gargling with salt water is a low-cost way to ease discomfort," says clinical pharmacist Mike Wakeman.
"It loosens thick mucus, which can remove irritants from the throat. Taken before bedtime, it may help prevent a common cold infection from getting worse."
To make the most of this remedy, mix ½tsp salt into 250ml warm water. Once dissolved, gargle at the back of your throat for as long as you can tolerate it.
Mike Wakeman is a pharmacist with Master’s in Pharmaceutical Analysis, Nutritional Medicine and soon Clinical Oncology.
2. Opt for peppermint tea
Usually drunk to aid digestion as one of the top gut-healthy foods, peppermint tea has myriad benefits, including easing the symptoms of a cold. "It contains anti-inflammatory compounds that may help inflammation," says GP Dr Nisa Aslam.
Warm drinks have also been found to ease all six symptoms of the common cold, per research Cardiff University, unlike beverages served at room temperature. This won't necessarily help to speed up recovery but as pharmacist and nutritional therapist Deborah Grayson from Practice with Confidence points out, "there's no evidence that decongestants do anything to speed up recovery."
Deborah Grayson brings over 25 years experience of working as a highly respected pharmacist to her nutrition practice and is widely regarded as the expert in the field of interactions between the patient, prescribed medication and nutritional supplements and herbs.
Dr Nisa Aslam is a general practitioner. She was awarded an MBBS with intercalated BSc degree from University College London and has over ten years’ experience working in NHS hospitals including UCLH, The Royal Free Hospital, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital and The Royal London. As a General Practitioner she manages both acute illness and chronic disease.
3. Suck on an ice cube
It's not only hot drinks that can soothe a sore throat, however. Cold ones can work equally as well. When your throat is swollen, ice is your friend - and it's another remedy that costs next to nothing.
"Sucking on an ice cube helps to ease inflammation and when it melts, it provides all-important hydration," says Dr Aslam.
How to clear congestion
4. Use two pillows
Your body needs the rest to fight off infection so learning how to sleep better when you have a cold is essential. But sleep doesn't often come easy to those who feel lunged up - and that's very normal, says Dr Tim Bond.
"It feels harder to breathe as mucus gathers when lying down," says Dr Bond, who works with Puressential, so propping your head up on an extra pillow can make all the difference.
"This can ease sinus problems and help breathing, allowing you to get a good, restful sleep," adds Wakeman. "Two standard pillows should elevate your head without causing neck pain."
Dr Tim Bond is a chemist, researcher, and natural health expert with a first class degree in Chemistry and a PhD in Natural products chemistry. He works with Puressential.
5. Alternate between a hot and cold press
Alternate hot and cold compresses on your eyes and sinuses. "This helps warm the nasal passages and loosen mucus secretions," says Wakeman. "Start by placing a hot towel or face flannel across your sinuses for about three minutes. Then a cold compress for 30 seconds. For best results, alternate three more times. Repeat four times a day."
6. Inhale steam
Steam inhalation will thin mucus in the nostrils and sinuses so it can drain more easily, perfect if you're looking to learn how to get rid of a cold fast. To do it right, lean over a bowl of steaming hot water with a towel over your head and gently inhale. You may want to add essential oils to the water for extra benefits - such as lavender for stress relief or as a sleep aid.
Most people will reach for decongestants in cases of congestion but these don't stand up as a longer-term remedy, says Grayson. "Decongestants can make you feel a little better for an hour or two, but can also make your nasal symptoms worse as you continue to dose up with them."
How to fight headaches
Massages aren't only one of the best ways to deal with stress - they can contribute to alleviating your cold symptoms as a tense jaw and taught facial muscles will only make you feel worse.
To relax this area, massage your face (including your jawline) with a warm flannel.
8. Stretch out your head and neck
We hold a lot of tension in the muscles around the neck and jaw at the best of times but it can build up even more when the sinuses get blocked with cold or flu. If you're looking to learn how to get rid of a cold fast, taking a moment to stretch and reset makes a world of difference and takes just a few minutes.
"Sit up, put your hands behind your head, and drop your chin to your chest," says physiotherapist Sammy Margo. "Press your chin down, hold for a minute, turn to the right and hold for a further minute. Return to the centre. Repeat on the left side."
As well as helping to get rid of a cold fast, stretching can help you learn how to wake up early in the morning in winter. Getting your body moving through simple exercise is one of the best ways to wake yourself up if you're struggling with the darker mornings.
Sammy Margo, MSc MCSP MMACP HCPC AACP, established her physiotherapy practice 25 years ago and is a spokesperson for the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. Sammy discovered that a good night’s sleep can have a significant impact on an individual’s healing process, so she went on to author The Good Sleep Guide and The Good Sleep Guide for Children.
9. Take a painkiller
Need to pop a pill to help with pain? "With medicine, the name and brand is irrelevant to how well it works," says superintendent pharmacist James O’Loan. Own-brand painkillers contain the same active ingredients as well-known branded ones.
Simply look for ‘paracetamol’ or ‘ibuprofen’ instead of the brand names and visit nhs.uk to search for dosage advice on taking over-the-counter painkillers.
James O'Loan is a qualified Pharmacist and Independent Prescriber. He has been in the industry for 12 years, working towards innovative digital healthcare solutions. He works with Chemist 4 U.
How to ease a cough
10. Try a home remedy
Thyme is well-known for its health benefits so make the most of this herb when you have a cold. Simmer 10 thyme sprigs and half a sliced lemon in 250ml water for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and cool until just warm, then stir in 200ml of honey. Allow to cool completely and store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to four weeks.
You don't need a lot of this mixture to make a difference so take a 5ml spoonful as needed.
11. Drink plenty of fluids
If you want to learn how to get rid of a cold fast, up your fluid intake and head to bed early. While this is a two-step remedy for feeling better 99% of the time anyway, it's even more important when you dealing with a cold or the flu.
With your immune system working in overdrive, you need all the help you can get. As a report by the Einstein College of Medicine in New York explains, water is a key ingredient in lymphatic fluid. This fluid is made up of white blood cells that circulate through the body and remove any toxins and impurities from the body which could cause negative symptoms, including bacteria and viruses.
12. Take a zinc supplement - but be careful
Upping your intake of essential vitamins and minerals can also help you get rid of a cold fast. Vitamin C is often the first go-to but zinc is the one we should prioritise, given that there's no evidence that vitamin C can help cure a cold quicker.
Research by McMaster University has revealed, however, that a zinc supplement can help reduce the duration of common cold symptoms like runny noses and sore throats by a day and a half.
A simple one like the Vitabiotics Zinc supplement is easy to take and also contains 15mg of copper, which is also useful for the immune system. However, zinc supplements won't be suitable for everyone - in some cases, they can cause side effects like nausea. Always speak to your doctor before taking a new supplement.
How long do colds last?
Colds typically last between seven and 10 days, according to the NHS. While coughs can last for two or three weeks, most cold symptoms tend to be worse in first two or three days and clear up relatively quickly.
However, you should speak to your doctor if your cold lasts any longer than three weeks if your symptoms suddenly get much worse, or if you find yourself experiencing breathing difficulties. In an emergency, always dial 999.
Unfortunately, there's no one sign that your cold is heading out the door. However, when you start to feel better, symptoms ease, and your energy levels return to normal, that's a big sign that your cold is almost over. In this case though, it's a good idea to continue resting and drinking plenty of fluids until you feel completely better.
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Faye M Smith is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years experience in the magazine industry. Her continued work in the area of natural health won her the coveted title of the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA) Journalist of the Year Award 2021. Currently Health Editor across several brands including woman&home, Woman and Woman’s Own, Faye specialises in writing about mental health, the menopause, and sex and relationships.
- Grace WalshHealth Channel Editor