How to Stop a Cold

Why we get colds -- and how to prevent them

By , Caring.com senior editor
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Closeup portrait of a sweet elderly woman smiling

Sometimes it seems like winter is just one long case of the sneezes; we all know what it's like to go around for weeks with a cold we just can't shake. Yet some lucky folks seem to get through the cold and flu season with nary a sniffle. How do they do it?

As it turns out, it's not really luck. Although it's true that some immune systems are more robust than others, just about anyone attacked by a cold virus is going to get a cold. The secret: Prevent the cold virus from breaching your defenses. And at the first sign of exposure or symptoms, mount a full-bore offense to stop it in its tracks.

How to stop a cold before it starts

The germs that cause colds have a preferred route of travel. Unlike various strains of influenza virus, which tend to travel in airborne droplets, cold viruses prefer a physical transmission route: from your hands to your nose or eyes, and then to the nasopharynx -- where the nose meets the mouth at the back of the throat (and where most colds begin). Studies have shown that most cold viruses can survive for up to three hours on nonporous surfaces such as doorknobs, countertops, and coffee cups. They can also survive on people's hands for several hours if they don't wash them.

That's why hand washing -- after you shake hands, after you open a door, after you push a shopping cart -- is item number one in your anticold defense manual. If you kill cold germs on your hands before you transfer them to your nose or eyes, you stop a cold before it can start.

Few of us can wash our hands as often as needed, though, so be sure to follow these other strategies as well:

Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes and nose. There are hundreds of viruses that cause the common cold, and most of them are rhinoviruses, which need to get into the mucous membranes lining the nose or into the tear ducts in order to cause infection. That means touching your face -- specifically your nose and eyes -- is the primary way people give themselves cold germs. The nasopharynx, where the nose meets the mouth, is the "sweet spot" for cold viruses. If they can reach this spot, it's very likely you'll get sick; if you prevent them from getting there, you won't. And a virus deposited at the base of the nose can easily be inhaled higher up into the nose.

So your mother was right: Don't pick or touch your nose. The tear ducts provide another pathway; rub your eyes and the cold virus can easily drain through the tear ducts into the nasopharynx. Don't rub them, and you avoid another possible cold.

Try not to touch public surfaces. Studies show that teaching children to sneeze into their elbow, rather than cover their mouths with their hands, has been very effective at reducing the incidence of colds in schools. Why? Because then the virus isn't on their hands, where it can be passed to others via shared surfaces such as doorknobs, chair backs, books, and toys.

Here's the surprising-but-true example doctors use: Did you know you're far more likely to catch a cold from touching an infected person's water glass and then wiping your eye or picking your nose than you are from drinking a sip of the sick person's water?

Knowing this, medical personnel recommend being as ingenious as possible in your efforts not to touch surfaces that many other people have also touched. One internist reported that she trained himself to push elevator buttons with her knuckles; a nurse mentioned he's learned to open doors by pushing them with his elbow or forearm.

Be finicky about sanitation. Dispose of dirty tissues promptly; the cold virus can live on them for several hours. Use hand sanitizer when you can't wash your hands right away; a recent study found there was less spread of colds in families using alcohol-based hand gels frequently.

Don't skimp on sleep. The studies are clear: Those who sleep less are much more susceptible to the cold virus once they're exposed. In one study published in the January 2009 Archives of Internal Medicine, people who slept fewer than seven hours a night were three times more likely to develop a cold when exposed to a rhinovirus compared to those who slept eight or more hours a night.