Nobody likes being sick — and even when your body gives you a little advance warning, you can often still feel helpless to prevent an infection from setting in. I have good news, though: it turns out that there are some things to do if you think you’re getting sick that might actually help your body fight off an oncoming cold or other illness. They may not be exactly surprising, and they aren’t going to halt whatever’s threatening your immune system in its tracks immediately — but according to research and experts, they can be quite effective. At the very least, they might help alleviate your symptoms or lessen the amount of time you actually stay sick.
It’s worth noting that a lot of commonly-cited advice for what to do if you think you’re getting sick actually isn't all that effective. Taking vitamin C when you feel a cold coming on, for example, doesn’t really help much. It’s true that one study found that extremely active people who took vitamin C every day were less likely to get colds — but the key here is the fact that they took it daily, not just when they thought they might be getting sick. The majority of literature just doesn’t support the idea of vitamin C being the magical cold-prevention tool that it’s often thought to be — and what’s more, studies on echinacea and zinc also have had similarly mixed results. There just isn't any sort of pill or supplement you can take that will absolutely prevent you from getting ill whenever you feel something coming on.
However, that doesn’t mean there’s absolutely nothing you can do to help stave off sickness. These four strategies not fail-safes, and they’re not cure-alls — but they will put your body in a better position to fight off whatever you think you might be coming down with.
1. Rest Up
There’s quite a clear connection between not getting enough sleep and getting sick. According to a 2016 study out of the University of California San Francisco, people who sleep five or fewer hours per night are 17 percent more likely to get a cold than those who sleep seven hours or more — and 51 percent more likely to get an infection (the flu, pneumonia, etc.). Said the study’s lead author, Aric Prather, to the Huffington Post at the time, “Sleep plays an incredibly important role in regulating and maintaining an efficient immune system.” If you don’t get enough of it, your immune system won’t be up to battling oncoming illnesses.
What’s more, another recent study from 2017 discovered why failing to get enough sleep causes your immune system to weaken: Insufficient sleep blocks particulargenetic processes in your immune system’s cells — which means, as study author Nathaniel Watson of the University of Washington School of Medicine put it to HuffPo, “Your immune system is not functioning the way it was meant to when you’re sleep deprived.”
So: If you think you’re getting sick, rest up. Go to bed early. Take a sick day or see if you can work from home. Don’t push yourself. In order for your immune system to do its thing, your body needs to get enough R and R.
2. Drink Plenty Of Fluids
It’s worth noting that, as the New York Times pointed out in 2011, there actually isn’t a ton of literature that supports the idea of drinking fluids as making a huge difference in how severe an infection is; however, many experts still recommend paying careful attention to staying hydrated when you think you’re getting sick. Some illnesses and symptoms, like fevers and respiratory tract infections, result in people losing more fluids than usual, so staying on top of your hydration game can help counteract those issues.
The key, HealthyWomen CEO Beth Battaglino, RN, tells Bustle, is "maintaining proper hydration — not over-hydrating during a cold or other upper respiratory infection." Not only can beverages like water and juice "replace fluids lost from fever and respiratory tract evaporation," Battaglino continues, but moreover, they can also "help loosen mucus." According to Jean Carstensen, MD, who spoke to WebMD in 2015, any fluids besides alcohol and caffeine will get the job done — but plain ol’ water is your best bet.
Battaglino means it when she says to avoid over-hydrating, by the way; there is such a thing as drinking too much water. Overdoing it can lead to water intoxication, or hyponatremia — a condition in which the sodium levels in your blood drop to dangerous levels due to having consumed way too much in the way of fluids in a short amount of time. According to Medical News Today, your kidneys can eliminate between 5.3 and 7.4 gallons (20 to 28 liters) of water per day, but only 27 to 33 ounces (0.8 to 1.0 liters) per hour — so, to avoid water intoxication, don’t drink more than 27 to 33 ounces (0.8 to 1.0 liters) of water an hour.
3. Do What You Can To De-Stress
Stress does weird things to your body — including making it more susceptible to illnesses like the common cold. In fact, a 2012 study found that people who live in situations that cause constant, chronic stress tend to get sick more often than those who don’t, largely due to the fact that constant stress causes your body to overproduce the hormone cortisol.
Cortisol regulates the body’s inflammatory response to infection — but, as lead author Sheldon Cohen told ABC News at the time, “The symptoms of a cold are not caused directly by the virus, they’re caused by the inflammatory response to the infection. You want to produce enough of the inflammation to fight off the infection, but so much that you experience cold symptoms.” When your body is constantly making too much cortisol, your immune system becomes resistant to it — which means that your body also has a harder time shutting down its inflammatory response.
As such, when you feel yourself getting sick, it’s a good idea to try to cut down on your stress levels as much as possible. You might try meditating (or simply taking a few deep breaths), engaging in a stress-reducing hobby, or saying “no” to things you know tend to cause you to stress out. Self-care is a wonderful and effective thing.
4. Work Out A Little Bit…Or Don’t
Ah, yes, the eternal question: Should I work out when I’m sick? Advice varies. According to some experts, working out when you’re sick is a good idea; it can help alleviate both stress and some of your symptoms, as well as boost your immune system a bit. According to others, though, it’s a no-go: As Dr. Pritish K. Tosh of the Mayo Clinic recently told BuzzFeed, “When you’re sick, you need to be resting. Now is not the time to decide to go on 5-mile run — you don't want to overexert yourself when you're recovering.” The “neck test” is often cited as a way to figure out whether you’re cleared to exercise or not: If your symptoms are all above the neck — stuffy nose, sore throat, stuff like that — then some light exercise (think walking, yoga, etc.) should be fine. If your symptoms include stuff happening below the neck, like chest congestion or a fever, though, then you’ll probably want to rest up instead.
That said, though, ultimately, the rule is simply to listen to your body: If you don’t feel up to working out even if you technically pass the neck test, then stay in bed and rest. As Beth Battaglino put it to Bustle, "My general rule is that if it’s just a little sniffle and you take some medication and don’t feel so sick, it’s OK to work out. However, if you have a fever or bronchial tightness, it is not advisable to work out."
Learn from my mistake: I’m just getting over a cold myself — one that I felt coming on last Thursday. It didn’t seem too bad at the time, so I went to the gym in the morning as usual… and quickly realized I had made an extremely poor decision. I did pass the neck test, but since I a) couldn’t breathe through my nose at all, and b) had some major post-nasal drip issues, I got short of breath really quickly and started to feel like I was going to throw up. I took that as my cue to get off the elliptical before anything… unfortunate happened.
Bonus: Not going to the gym when you’re sick also limits the amount of people who will be exposed to your infection. (So, uh... sorry, everyone who went to my apartment's gym last Thursday after I did. But hey, at least I haven't been back since, right?)
Although there isn't a fool-proof way to stop an illness that's already working its way through your system, it's comforting to know that we can at least do something to make it suck less in the meantime. Never underestimate the worth of taking care of yourself. Your health is definitely worth it.
This post was originally published on Jan. 12, 2018. It was updated on June 18, 2019.