It sneaks its way in subtly: You feel the need to clear your throat, suffer one too many sneezes, or can’t seem to perk up, no matter how many cups of coffee you drink. Cue the groan, you’re most likely on the verge of a cold.
“In a cold’s very initial stages, you might wake up with a bit of a scratchy throat, a runny nose that’s clear and liquid, and some sneezing,” explains Kathryn Boling, M.D., a primary care provider at Mercy Personal Physicians in Lutherville, Maryland. “You might also feel tired and experience some stuffiness.”
The good news: There are some early steps you can take to give your immune system the best fighting chance. Here are five doctor-recommended things to do when you feel a cold coming on.
1. Reach for The Right Supplements
Unfortunately, there’s no end-all, be-all cure for the common cold. However, when you feel under the weather, Boling believes one nutrient is better poised than others to give your immune system some help: zinc.
However, Boling warns that supplementing with zinc may cause slight nausea. Her personal solution? Copper. “I take zinc with copper every day during cold and flu season,” she says. “The copper helps you avoid nausea.” She recommends approximately 50 milligrams of zinc and two milligrams of copper per day.
Of course, always chat with your doctor before adding new supplements into your routine.
2. Cut Out Sugar ASAP
While you’re feeling lousy, a comforting sweet (say, a brownie or cookie) might seem like a satisfying move. But according to Stephanie Gray, D.N.P., A.R.N.P., founder of the Integrative Health and Hormone Clinic, those are the last types of foods you should reach for.
“Stop consuming sugar immediately,” she cautions. “It can suppress your immune system.” One study published in the Open Journal Of Immunology found dietary sugars, particularly fructose and sucrose, can negatively affect the body’s immune response to viral and bacterial pathogens.
“Instead, reach for colorful fruits and vegetables that are loaded with antioxidants and micronutrients,” she says. The exception to the no-sweets rule: honey. “Honey is antibacterial and antiviral,” Boling says. She recommends manuka honey, specifically.
3. Guzzle H20
While it’s always important to stay hydrated, continuously sipping water is especially essential if you feel a cold coming on.
Infection with any virus, be it a cold or not, can cause certain people to dehydrate quicker, so ramp up your intake when you first feel symptoms, Boling says.
Read More: Are You Dehydrated Without Even Knowing It?
Plus, “Keeping your skin and mucous membranes plump and hydrated lessens the ability of invaders to get into the body,” explains Gray. “Dry, cracked skin can allow invaders in.”
If you feel thirsty, though, you’re already dehydrated. Gray’s rule of thumb: Aim to consume half of your body weight (in pounds) in ounces of water per day. So, if you weigh 150 pounds, start with 75 ounces of H2O per day.
4. Skip Intense Workouts
A study published in Medicine and Science In Sports And Exercise found that moderate exercise during an upper-respiratory infection is generally ok, and most experts agree. But while there’s no harm in light living room yoga or hopping on a stationary bike for a gentle ride, better skip the burpees if you’re feeling sick, says Gray.
“High-intensity exercise will actually raise your levels of cortisol, a hormone released during periods of stress that can limit your body’s ability to fight infection,” she explains. “You don’t want to be in a fight-or-flight state when sick.”
In fact, one study published in the Journal Of Athletic Training found that high-intensity exercise can actually briefly suppress your immune system. Which is, of course, the last thing you need when you want your body’s defense system operating in high gear.
5. Prioritize Sleep
Once a cold virus has entered your body, your defense system works overtime to stomp out the infection. In order for your body to do its job, though, you need to play your part by offering it ample rest. A study published in the journal Sleep noted that individuals who prioritized sleep (more than six hours per night) were far less likely to develop colds than those who skimped on snooze (six hours or less).
“Sleep is crucial to recovery and repair,” explains Gray. She recommends shutting off all electronics at night, refraining from charging your cell phone near your bed, and opting for blue-light-blocking glasses when using electronics during the day.
“I notice that once I put more effort into better sleep, my body is able to better overcome whatever it is fighting,” she says.
When A Cold Should Raise Concern
When you start to feel icky, your mind might naturally assume the worst (ahem, COVID-19—the ruthless pathogen that’s upended most of our lives in 2020).
The tricky part is, a COVID-19 infection might feel like a simple cold, says Boling. “It can be hard to tell if you have COVID-19 or a cold,” she explains. “COVID-19 can be asymptomatic, and it can also act like a cold or allergies.”
Read More: When A Cold Is Not Just A Cold
Your safest bet, according to Boling? “Wear a mask, isolate yourself, and be super-careful,” she suggests. “And if those cold-like symptoms progress to something more concerning, like a fever, you should consider getting tested for COVID-19.”
That said, it’s also important to note that, on average, adults get two to three colds per year, pandemic or not. So don’t panic right off the bat.
Either way, when isolating yourself and doing your part to prevent the spread of whatever infection you’re currently saddled with, taking the steps outlined above can support your overall health.