How do you know you have a pre-cold? You feel that tickle in your throat, your ears start to itch, you just feel off?. I was struck a week before Christmas last year. My daughter had brought home a sniffle from preschool, and a few days before we were slated to get on a plane, I started to notice all the tell-tale signs that I, too, was about to get sick. "Oh no, a pre-cold! Please grant me immunity," I begged the universe. No one heard me: Through the holiday I was a hacking, coughing, runny-nosed heap of tissues and misery.
The "pre-cold" has a real name: the prodrome. "It's the early phase of an illness, before you get systemic symptoms—the time between that dull headache, scratchy throat, or slightly stuffy nose you notice when you're about to get sick, and an actual full-blown cold," explains Evangeline R. Lausier, M.D., an internist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C. If you jump on it right away, she says, you may be able to keep your pre-cold from hitting full-force.
It Can Be Stopped
Cold viruses start replicating themselves within a few hours of finding their way into your body. And those first symptoms are caused by your immune system ramping up to fight the viral invader. There are no universal, official signs of a pre-cold, says Donald B. Levy, M.D., assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and medical director of the Osher Clinical Center for Integrative Medicine in Boston. "But at some point you realize that you're coming down with something—and the first 24 to 48 hours is when you have the best chance of fighting it off," says Levy.
There are a few key lifestyle habits everyone should prioritize during a pre-cold, says Lausier: Get sleep, drink lots of fluids, and reduce stress. According to a big review of research published in Psychosomatic Medicine, the more stressed you are, the more likely you are to get knocked down by a cold. And another study found that people who got less than seven hours of sleep a night were nearly three times as likely to develop a cold after being exposed to viruses than those who got eight or more hours of rest per night. The reason for the need to guzzle liquids: Once you're infected with the cold virus, your mucus is teeming with germs, and the thinner the mucus, the less likely it is to clump up and provide a warm, ideal home for the virus to proliferate. Sipping water, tea, or juices helps thin it out. "If you clear that mucus out, it's like the petri dish in your body is getting cleaned," says Lausier. "Do whatever you can to keep that mucus flowing and not plugging things up."
Those are the basics, but there's more you can do, says Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., an expert in herbal medicine who has advised the National Institutes of Health. See some research-backed fixes, below.
Natural Remedies Docs Love
We all know someone who swears by one natural potion or another, so we asked experts to single out the remedies that are backed by science. Below, the three that doctors say are worth trying. "Just be careful not to over treat a pre-cold," says Levy. "Use natural meds exactly as directed, and if they're not helping, try something else."
- Echinacea: Several studies have found that echinacea boosts the production of certain molecules in the immune system. And many doctors, including Low Dog, think it's worth trying this herb in an effort to stave off a cold. She recommends an echinacea tincture—a liquid herbal extract thought to be faster-acting than capsules or tea.
- Zinc: If you start taking zinc within 24 hours, it can shorten colds by a few days and make them less severe, says a review of 15 studies. There's encouraging research on zinc lozenges in particular, says Low Dog. 75 mg per day shows the best results, but to avoid stomach upset, take small doses throughout the day, and have them with food.
- Elderberry: Research suggests that elderberries can help relieve nasal congestion, and they have antiviral properties as well, says Lausier. A small but well-regarded Israeli study of people with early-stage coughs and congestion found that those who took elderberry syrup got over their symptoms an average of four days faster than those who didn't.
This story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.