There's a lot of old-fashioned advice out there focusing on ways to help your cold go away faster. These tips and tricks get passed down from generation to generation, in an effort to speed up the healing process. But unfortunately, not every old wives' tale actually works, or makes much of a difference when it comes to feeling better.
"There’s no question that prior to the availability of what we consider modern medicine, people tried all sorts of things to feel better when they were sick," Ashley Wood, RN, BSN, a registered nurse and contributor to Demystifying Your Health, LLC, tells Bustle. "However, most of these things have been found to not have any real impact on improving your health."
Generally, a typical head cold will last about seven to 10 days, no matter what you do. But you can manage your symptoms by getting lots of rest, eating nutrient-rich foods, and drinking plenty of water, Wood says, while the virus runs its course.
There is, however, one old wives' tale in this genre that may have some truth to it. And that's eating chicken soup. "Most of the time, chicken soup is made with pepper, onion, and garlic, which can ease the inflammation caused by the infection," Wood says. "An amino acid in chicken, cysteine, is known for thinning mucus. Typically, the soup also has vegetables in it, which are healthy and nutritious. So, while chicken soup might not cure you, it might ease your symptoms."
Read on below for some old wives' tales that may not make much of a difference when it comes to getting over a cold, according to experts.
1. Feed A Fever, Starve A Cold
You may have heard the old adage to "feed a fever, starve a cold," which suggests getting plenty of food if you have a fever, while holding off if you have a cold. But the truth is skipping out on vitamins and nutrients is never a good idea, whether you're sick or not.
"This is because when you fast, you deprive your body of nutrients," Wood says. "If you don’t get enough nutrients when your immune system is compromised, it can make it more challenging for your body to get rid of the infection."
So go against this old-fashioned advice, and make sure you eat enough even if you have a cold. You can try the chicken soup mentioned above, which may help you feel better. Vegetable soup will also do — as long as it's warm and nutritious, it may help ease symptoms.
2. Avoid Dairy Products
Many people try to avoid dairy when they have a cold, thanks to the idea that milk products can increase mucus production. (Read: boogers.) And yet, as Wood says, "there isn’t any research to agree with this."
You can always choose to avoid dairy for health or personal reasons. But if you're sick and just so happen to be craving cheese, milk, or ice cream, there's no need to avoid it for fear of making your cold worse or being extra phlegmy.
3. Wear Socks (With Vapor Rub)
"Some people feel that putting [vapor rub] on your feet and wearing socks will help get rid of a cough," Wood says. But when you think about this particular old wives' tale, it's easy to see how it doesn't make much sense at all.
"The problem with this theory is that the vapors that are released are supposed help relieve nasal congestion and coughing when they are inhaled," Wood says. "If the vapors are trapped inside your socks, you won’t be able to inhale them."
Instead, you'll want to put vapor rub products on your chest, or wherever your doctor suggests. The point is to keep the vapors up by your face, where they can help relieve a stuffy nose and make it easier to breathe.
4. Look At Your Mucus
Taking a peep at the color of the mucus is an old school way of assessing how sick you are. And yet, it doesn't actually provide accurate info.
"Many people [...] believe that if the mucus you’re bringing up is green, then the infection is caused by bacteria and you’ll need antibiotics to get better," Wood says. "Whether it’s bacterial or viral doesn’t dictate what color your mucus is. Mucus can appear in a variety colors that is dependent not only on the infection, but food you’ve eaten or chemicals your body has absorbed."
The best way to know for sure if you need antibiotics is by going to your doctor. They can figure out whether your cold is caused by a bacteria or a virus. Most colds are viral, and won't respond to antibiotics anyway.
5. Take Vitamin C
"One old wives’ tale that many people believe is if you take echinacea, zinc, or vitamin C, then you’ll cure your cold," Wood says. "Unfortunately, [though,] there have been several studies and the findings are inconclusive."
Of course, it won't hurt to take a dose of vitamin C if you'd like, and doing so may boost your immune system and help keep you from getting sick in the first place.
That said, "most of the studies didn’t see any difference in length of a cold’s duration between individuals who took any of these supplements versus those who did not," Wood says.
6. Avoid Exercise At All Costs
"Some people believe that you can’t exercise if you have a cold because you’re supposed to be letting your body rest," Wood says. "This isn’t true as long as you don’t have a fever or difficulty breathing."
In fact, light exercise may actually boost your body's endorphins, Wood says, which can give you a much-needed energy boost. So if you want to go for a walk or do some yoga, don't let a minor cold hold you back.
"Just remember to listen to your body and take more frequent breaks so you don’t overdo it," she says. "Also, be sure to drink lots of fluids."
7. Stay Inside
According to pretty much every piece of old-fashioned health advice, the last thing you want to do is go outside in cold weather when you're sick. This idea likely came from the fact colds are more common in the winter months, Wood says, as well as the fact that chilly air can temporarily make your nose runny — in a non-viral way.
In reality, though, colds develop more frequently in the winter because people stay indoors and pass germs around, and not due to frigid air. In fact, "some evidence suggests that those people living in cold climates have a better immune system for fighting off the cold," Anthony Kouri, MD, chief resident at University of Toledo Medical Center, tells Bustle. "There are situations in which your body becomes hypothermic, which can lower your immune response and make you more susceptible to a cold. However, this is not common, and does not mean that the cold causes a cold."
If you need to venture out into the cold, don't worry about getting sicker. "A variation of this myth is going outside when your hair is wet because you’ll catch a cold," Wood says. "While it might not feel good being outside in the cold with wet hair, it won’t adversely affect your health."
In order to recover from a cold, you should simply focus on getting rest while your symptoms are at their worst, drinking water, eating nutritious foods, and taking an over-the-counter cold medicine, if you'd like. But in terms of old wives' tales, the ones mentioned above may not help you get better faster.