How can I prevent a cold?

Alvin S. Haynes Jr., MD
Internal Medicine
If people are sick in the office, remember to wash your hands frequently and consider wearing a small mask. Little paper surgical masks block germy particles from getting into your mouth and nose. You can find them at most pharmacies or medical supply stores.
Carmen Patrick Mohan, MD
Internal Medicine
In aggregate, studies demonstrate physical interventions such as hand washing reduce the risk and transmission of common colds. Studies in children have demonstrated that use of zinc can help reduce the number of colds contracted in one year and most experts believe this benefit is likely to be conferred to adults. Using probiotics has been associated with reduced number of upper respiratory tract infections in both adults and children. Interestingly, there is one good study demonstrating simply gargling with water every day can help prevent colds for those in general good health.  For those people under physical stress such as marathon runners or hikers in subarctic climates, vitamin C may provide some benefit. However, it is important to note there was no benefit of Vitamin C for the average person. The jury is still out on whether garlic, elderberry, or homeopathy are helpful in preventing colds, and neither vitamin D nor Echinacea is effective for cold prevention.
Keri Peterson, MD
Internal Medicine
Internal Medicine Specialist Dr. Keri Peterson explains how you can avoid catching a cold. Watch Dr. Peterson's video for information on health and wellness.
Jill A. Grimes, MD
Family Medicine
The best defense you can have against cold germs is a combination of staying healthy (see how it always comes back to good nutrition, exercise, and sleep!) and washing your hands. Use those wipes that many grocery stores provide and wipe down the handle before you place your hands on that shopping cart. Cough and cold viruses are easily passed from one person covering their mouth to cough or rubbing their eyes and then putting their hands on a door knob, stair rail, or yes, shopping cart, allowing the next person to touch that same object and then touch their own face/mouth and pass the virus. Washing your hands frequently and being aware of not touching your eyes, nose or mouth will help reduce your chance of catching these common germs.

What about extra vitamin C and zinc? Well, best-evidence medicine has indeed shown that extra vitamin C will reduce symptoms and possibly shorten the course of the common cold. Zinc lozenges have been proven to decrease susceptibility to these germs, but do not shorten the course of illness once you are infected.
Washing hands, getting adequate sleep, eating a diet rich in citrus fruits and keeping stress levels low can help reduce your susceptibility to cold viruses. A 2013 study in the Annals of Family Medicine suggests that regular exercise coupled with regular meditation may be almost as effective as a flu vaccine’s impact on the immune system.

Most provocative in the study were the findings that exercise alone or meditation alone did have a positive impact on health. Exercise seemed to reduce the number of episodes of a cold infection. Meditation seemed to decrease the severity of the infection. When the two modalities are combined with regularity, the “one-two” punch was an overall reduction in both frequency and severity of colds.
To lower your chances of catching a cold, avoid large crowds or places where many people are sick. Wash your hands with soap and water frequently. Avoid sharing personal items such as drinks, towels, and pillows. Eat a well-balanced diet and get an adequate amount of sleep every night. Also, try to avoid emotional stress by utilizing coping skills and learning stress management. (This answer provided for NATA by the Southern Connecticut State University Athletic Training Education Program)
Clifford W. Bassett, MD
Allergy & Immunology
The following strategies have been shown in various studies to help you reduce your need for boxes and boxes of facial tissues and just in general feeling "lousy" for a week or so after succumbing to the "common cold":
  • Getting enough sleep and rest can help you and your immune system -- not an easy task in our multi-tasking society.
  • A healthful diet abundant in (colorful) fruits and vegetables with their numerous phytonutrients can't hurt, according to some researchers. Believe it or not, there is even a study finding "chicken soup" can perhaps help to fight a cold.
  • Ask your health care provider to measure your Vitamin D level and make recommendations on an appropriate daily dosage for you. Studies have linked lower levels of Vitamin D with more getting colds more frequently and conversely, those in the same study that had higher levels may be associated with significantly fewer colds.
  • Wash those hands. Know the "happy birthday" song; in other words, if you can recite this song, then you have adequately spent enough time washing your hands with warm, soapy water.
  • When soap and water and a faucet is not available, use alcohol hand sanitizer (60% or greater concentration) to try and kill cold germs on your hands and fingers.
  • Stay home if you are spewing forth with cold germs via sneezing, runny nose and coughing. You will be doing your friends, colleagues, classmates and co-workers a big favor!
  • Use facial tissues, not your hands, when you sneeze and try not to rub your nose and eyes to reduce transmission of viral particles that cause colds.
Joel H. Fuhrman, MD
Family Medicine
Dried powdered fruit and vegetable supplements, multivitamins, and other health remedies, even garlic and vitamin C or E, may show some benefits in those with deficient or marginal intake of antioxidants and phytochemicals, but the best and most effective way to prevent illness is with comprehensive nutritional adequacy maintained all year with dietary and supplemental recommendations, not by looking for specific cold remedies.

Almost every family has their favored remedies and advice. From chicken soup to wearing cloves of garlic around the neck to wearing warm hats, your mother learned her immunity-enhancing ideas from her mother. Unfortunately, chicken soup, steam vaporizers, hot tea with honey, and rubbing smelly salves on the chest do not have scientific data to document effectiveness and in fact, have mostly been debunked in scientific investigations. In fact, when scrutinized with high-quality placebo trials, almost all remedies show no significant effects, unless a person was somewhat nutritionally deficient before supplying more of the needed micronutrients. For example, pomegranate is a superfood that builds stronger immune function, and the long-term use of it and other highly nutritious superfoods may decrease the incidence of infections, but they should not be seen as cold remedies, but merely a highly nutritious food that supports a normal functioning immune system, which enhances immunity.

Even vitamin D, elderberry, and zinc, which have proven efficacy, are likely only of value in people whose levels are suboptimal. So the goal is still to achieve nutritional adequacy and forgets the idea of nutritional remedies when ill. Take 15 mg of zinc per day all year, and increase to 30 mg with an onset of cold symptoms. Probiotics and elderberry syrup are likely worth a try when ill.
Super Immunity: The Essential Nutrition Guide for Boosting Your Body's Defenses to Live Longer, Stronger, and Disease Free

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Super Immunity: The Essential Nutrition Guide for Boosting Your Body's Defenses to Live Longer, Stronger, and Disease Free

In Super Immunity, world-renowned health expert and New York Times bestselling author of Eat to Live Dr. Joel Fuhrman offers a nutritional guide to help you live longer, stronger, and disease...
Leigh Vinocur, MD
Emergency Medicine
Good hand-washing is key to preventing both colds and the flu.  So try not to touch your face, eyes, nose and mouth during this cold and flu season without washing your hands since this is how viruses can be transmitted. Cover your sneezes and cough with the inside crook of your elbow (if you don’t have a tissue). Throw out used tissues immediately. But the best way to prevent the flu and any complications that can develop from it, such as pneumonia, is to get a yearly vaccination. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot.

Continue Learning about Cold and Flu

Cold and Flu

Cold and Flu

Colds and flu are both viral infections, but have different symptoms. With a cold you will have symptoms such as a runny nose or a sore throat. Flu symptoms come on suddenly and may include fever, body aches or vomiting. While the...

re is no cure for either, there are treatments -- chicken soup, nasal sprays, rest -- which can help your feel better.

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.